A year has passed since the tragedy related in the last chapter. Menelaüs, thanks chiefly to the fickle temper of Antiochus, had escaped the fate which overtook his accomplice Andronicus, and had returned to pillage his unfortunate countrymen in Palestine. But his lease of power had come to an end. Jason, his dispossessed rival, had taken the opportunity of a report that Antiochus was dead, and attacked him. There could hardly be any choice between the two men. Both were equally rapacious; equally unfaithful to their religion and their country. But Jason had been out of power for two years, and his misdeeds had faded a little from the memory of the people; Menelaüs's enormities were still fresh in their recollection. After a sharp conflict, the losses of which were utterly out of proportion to any gain that could possibly come from it, Jason had won the day, and his rival had been compelled to take refuge in the Castle. Then came the news that the report of the death of Antiochus was false. He had settled affairs in Egypt after his liking, and was now on his way northwards, furious at the trouble which this obstinate province was giving him, and resolved, as he said, to quiet it for good. Jason had fled in headlong haste, and his partisans, and, indeed, most of those who had the means to go, had followed his example. Meanwhile Jerusalem was awaiting the future with fear and trembling.
It is an evening in the early summer, and the western wall of the city is crowded with men and women, who are gazing with awe-stricken faces on the strange appearance of the sunset. All day people had been talking of the marvellous shapes which had appeared the evening before in the western sky, and now a great multitude had assembled to see whether the marvel would be repeated, and, if so, to judge of it for themselves. Nor had they assembled in vain. Never, within the memory of man, had the heavens worn a stranger, a more terrifying look. Above the spot where the sun was just sinking to his rest the whole sky glowed with a red and angry light. On this background, so to speak, the clouds of a lower stratum had shaped themselves into the forms of two armies ready to engage in battle. The spectators seemed to be able to trace in one place the serried ranks of infantry, in another the massed array of chariots and horses. A space, brilliantly coloured, as it might seem, with something like the hue of blood, intervened between the two airy hosts. But these seemed to be slowly nearing each other, and the gazing people watched the lessening space, expecting, one might think, to hear the actual clash of arms when they should have met. But then the sun set, and with the sudden failing of light that marks the evening of more southern climes than ours, the whole pageant vanished from before the eyes of the spectators.
Among the crowd is our old acquaintance Menander, or Micah, whom we last met in the library of Jason. Things have not gone well with him since then. He had cherished a belief that Greek culture, the brightness of Greek literature and art, would do something to amend the severity, and what he was pleased to call the tastelessness of Jewish life. To a certain extent it had been an honest belief, though the pleasure-loving nature of the man, in its revolt against the stern morality of the Law, had had something to do with developing it. But his experience of Greek culture and its works had not been encouraging. If the reforming doctrine had to be preached by such prophets as Jason, and Menelaüs, and the cruel and profligate young tyrant Antiochus, it was more than doubtful whether it would do any good. Hitherto, certainly, it had done no good at all. The people were more unhappy, more spiritless more like slaves than they had ever been before; the rulers were more greedy and selfish, more absolutely careless of all that did not concern their own interests. Might he not, he began to think to himself, have made a mistake? Might not the old life, which was at least the life of free men, be better than the new?
He was busy with such thoughts when he heard a woman's voice behind him whisper "Micah." He did not recognize it at once, but its tones were familiar to him, and they seemed to touch the same chord in his heart with which his thoughts were then busy. And the name, the old Hebrew name, that too was familiar, though it was long since he had heard it. He was "Menander" to his friends; for his friends were either Greeks, or else Jews who, like himself, had cast off the associations of his birth and race.
"Micah," said the voice again, and he turned to look at the speaker.
She was a woman of some thirty years, plainly, almost poorly, dressed, but with all the air of gentle birth and breeding. Her face was beautiful, not with the brilliant loveliness of youth, but with that which is brought into the features by a pure and tender soul. There were the lines of many sorrows and cares upon her forehead, and round her eyes, and in the corners of mouth and cheek; but her eyes, save that they seemed almost too large for the thinner contours of the face, were as beautiful as they had been in the first glory of her youth.
It was Hannah, his elder sister, who had been as a mother to him in his orphaned childhood, that Menander recognized. Years had passed since they met. There had been no quarrel, but circumstances had made a barrier between them. What Menander's life had been we know, and Hannah was the wife of a faithful and devout Jew, Azariah by name, who, though still cherishing kindly thoughts for his young kinsman, had felt that, for the present at least, they were best apart.
Brother and sister eagerly clasped hands, and Menander, or Micah, as we will call him, felt a lump rise in his own throat as he saw the tearful smile in Hannah's lustrous eyes.
"Micah," she said—"for you will not mind my calling you Micah, though I hear you use another name; but you were always Micah to me—this is a strange sight on which we have been looking."
"Yes, sister," he answered, with a gaiety of tone which was more than half assumed—"yes, sister, strange enough; but then we know that the clouds do take strange shapes at times. A current of air blows them this way or that, and, with our fancy to help, they become anything in heaven or earth that we may fancy."
"Nay, Micah, there is more than fancy here. You and I used to watch the clouds from the window in the old house, and to laugh at the odd shapes which we found in them—lions, and dogs, and whales, and such things—but we never saw such a sight as this."
"But we had not in those days such thoughts of our own to read into the sights of the skies. But tell me, Hannah, what do you think it means?"
"What can it mean," she answered, in a low voice, "but wrath—wrath upon us and upon our children?"
"Wrath, perhaps," he cried; "and the sky has, I must confess, an angry look. But why must it be upon us? Why not rather upon our enemies? I see nothing in the skies which tells us whether these sights be meant for us or for them."
"Nay, my brother, speak not thus, for you know better in your heart. The heavens give us these signs, or rather God gives them to us through the heavens, but He leaves it to our own hearts to interpret them. They tell us surely enough on whom this wrath must fall."
"But, sister, tell me why on us? Are we worse than our neighbours—than these robbers of Edomites and Ammonites, these sullen Romans, never satisfied except when they are fighting—these mongrel Syrians?"
"They are heathen," said Hannah, in a solemn voice, "and they do not sin against light. Let us leave them to the judgment of God. But ourselves we can judge. Look at this city; we call it the City of David—but where is the spirit of David? Have we not trampled the Law underfoot, making to ourselves graven images of things in heaven and earth and the water under the earth? Where is the honour of the Sabbath? Where is the morning and evening sacrifice? Where are the yearly feasts? Will our God deliver us again, when we will not thank Him for the deliverances that He hath wrought already? Oh, Micah, I do not seek to anger you; but are you such as our father, now in Abraham's bosom, would rejoice to see you? And tell me, how was it that we Hebrews became a great people? A Syrian ready to perish was our father, and lo! before a thousand years were past, Solomon reigned from the great river to the Western sea. How came we by this might? Was it by aping Egyptian or Greek? Did we not keep to our own way, and walk after our own law, and worship our own God? Then it was well with us, and the nations round about feared us and honoured us; but now they laugh us to scorn, for we are ashamed of our own selves, and seek to be what they are, and cannot attain to it, and so fall short both of their greatness and of ours."
Micah stood dumb before this fierce torrent of words. Was this the gentle Hannah of his youth? There must be some mighty influence that could change the lamb into the lioness.
She went on, in a gentler voice, "You are not angry with me, brother?"
"I must go, for my husband will be waiting for the evening meal. Come, children," she went on, speaking to two little girls who had been clinging to their mother's cloak, gazing open-eyed and half-terrified at this strange kinsman.
"And are these my nieces?"
"Yes; Miriam and Judith," answered Hannah, pointing first to one and then to the other.
"This, children, is your dear uncle, Micah."
The young man stooped and kissed the children.
"You will not let it be so long before we see you again?" said Hannah.
His answer was to wring her hand, and turn away. Her words had pricked him to the heart, and he did not know whether to thank her or be angry.
We must now turn to another group which had also been drawn to the walls by the report of the marvellous sights that were to be seen in the heavens. A group it was that would have attracted attention anywhere, so remarkable were the contrasts and the resemblances which it presented.
The principal figure was an old man dressed in the everyday garb of a priest. The burden of years had bowed his stately figure, for he had long since passed the limit which the Psalmist assigns to the life of man, but his eye was as brilliant as ever, and his voice, when he spoke, had lost none of its depth and fulness of tone. His three companions were men in the vigour of life. All surpassed the common stature, but yet none of them equalled the height of their father, for that they were father and sons the most casual observer must have seen. In age there was little difference between them. The eldest may have numbered about forty years, the youngest, perhaps, four less. Their dress was mainly that of the middle-class Jew, and so different from the old man's priestly garb, but not without some distinctive marks that indicated the fact that they belonged to the House of Aaron. The multitude of priests was indeed so great that but a very small share in the services of the Temple, even when these were fully carried out, fell to the lot of any one man. These services had now been reduced to a minimum, and numbers of the priestly houses, while not repudiating their hereditary office, practically devoted themselves to the ordinary avocations of life. This had been done by the three sons of Mattathias of Modin, for such was the name and such the ancestral city of the aged priest.
"Judas," said the old man, addressing one of his sons, "these signs in the heavens are of a surety from the Lord."
The son addressed was the youngest of the three; but it was evident from the bearing of his brothers, and from the air of respect and attention with which they waited for him to speak, that they were accustomed to see him the first recipient of their father's confidence. And indeed it was not difficult to see, under a superficial resemblance of figure and face, something that distinguished him from his companions. John, the eldest, was a plain, blunt soldier, raised above the average level of his profession, by the purity of his life and the depth of his religious convictions, but still essentially a soldier, one who saw no way of solving complicated questions save by a downright blow of the sword. Simon, the second in point of age, had a singularly mild and benevolent expression, though his eyes were full of intelligence and the lines of his mouth and chin seemed to show that he could be firm on occasion. But Judas had all the outward characteristics of a hero. A sturdier soldier never wielded sword, but he saw that there are difficulties to which the sword alone can bring no solution. Nor was he slow to follow all the subtleties of diplomacy; but, at the same time, he never lost his grasp of the principles which all the skill of the diplomatist is unable to change.
"Father," he now said, "that these signs are from the Lord I do not doubt. But what is your counsel?"
"Speak you first, my son," replied the old man; " 'tis ever best so. You might be unwilling to differ from me and yet be in the right. This at least my years have taught me—that it is easy for any man to err."
"Let us stay," said Judas. " 'Tis true the air is stifling, such as a free man can scarcely bear to breathe. But there are many, father, that look to you for counsel and guidance, and we may scarcely leave them, at least till the call sounds more plainly in our ears."
"Nay," cried John, the soldier, "I am not, as you know, one that would readily give his vote for flight. But here we are, methinks, as rats in a hole. May we not lawfully, and with good faith to God and our brethren, seek some place where we may at least have space to draw our swords and strike a blow?"
"And you, Simon, what say you?" asked the old man, turning to his second son.
"God knows that I would give much to be back at home. But our brethren need us here, and we may give them some comfort. Let us stay."
"Judas and Simon," said the old man, after a pause, "you have spoken well, and I give my voice with yours. As yet our duty seems to keep us here. When it shall call us hence, we will follow it. And you, John, think not that you will long want for an occasion to strike with the sword. It shall come; but you will be readier for it if you make no haste to meet it."
With this the little party turned away from the wall, and made their way to their lodging in the city.