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The Hammer by  Alfred J. Church

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NEWS BAD AND GOOD

[135] AS the weeks went by fugitives continued to arrive at the little asylum which Seraiah and Azariah had founded among the hills. There was not one of them but brought with him some dismal story of the cruelty of the heathen and the renegades who acted as their instruments, and of the sufferings of the faithful. We should weary our readers were we to relate them in their monotony of horror. One will suffice, for it is the most famous as it is the most tragic of all the tales of that reign of terror.

One night the sentinels, whom the chiefs of the little colony were always careful to post, heard the sound of approaching footsteps. They challenged the new comer, and bade him stand, and tell them his errand. He could not articulate his answer, so spent was he with fatigue and distress; but it was evident that he was harmless, a mere youth, solitary, and unarmed. Unwilling to disturb the little colony at so late an hour—it was indeed [136] past midnight—the sentinels bade the stranger rest before their watch-fire. He was so exhausted and weary that he could swallow but very little of the food which his entertainers offered him. A few mouthfuls of barley cake, and a draught of milk more than satisfied him. Then he sank down on the ground overpowered with sleep, and his hosts wrapped him in a cloak and left him to his repose. Yet, wearied as he was, his slumbers were broken. Again and again he started up with a cry of horror on his lips. Those who listened to him felt sure that he must be going over in his dreams some dreadful scenes which he had witnessed.

The next day he could scarcely be recalled to consciousness. Indeed it was judged well to leave nature to recover herself. The women of the colony took it in turns to watch by his side, and were ready, when he awoke for a few moments, with a cup of milk, the only thing which he seemed to relish. By degrees his slumbers grew more peaceful, and on the morning of the second day after his arrival he woke calm and collected.

It was Ruth who then happened to be on duty at his side. When he saw her, he said, "Lady, I have a story to tell, and the chief of this place should hear it. Let him make haste to come, for I feel that I cannot rest while it is untold."

Ruth sent one of her children to fetch her husband. The stranger refused to postpone his narrative till [137] he should have gathered a little more strength. "Nay," said he; "it is like a weight upon my soul, and I would lighten me of it by committing itto faithful ears."

"Speak on," said Seraiah.

Then the lad told his story.

My name is Abimelech, and I come from Jerusalem. My father and mother are dead; but I lived with my grandmother, the mother of my father, and his brethren, my uncles, There were seven of them, the eldest being some thirty-and-three years of age, and the youngest twenty; but my father that is dead was the first-born. On the first day of the month, coming home about the eleventh hour from the school of the Rabbi Zechariah——

"Are there then yet those who teach in the city?" interrupted Seraiah.

"Yes," answered the lad, "but they do it by stealth, for the reading of the Law is strictly forbidden by the Governor. But we learn it notwithstanding, and verily if the heathen should destroy every roll that there is of the Holy Books in the whole world there are those who could replace them from memory. I pretend not to so much; but I could say three out of the five books of Moses, the man of God."

"Praised be the Lord God of Israel," cried Seraiah, who hath not left Himself without a witness! But go on with your story."

[138] "Coming home, then, from school I found the soldiers of Philip the Phrygian in the house, Philip himself being there. They had set forth a table in the court of the house, whereon they had placed abominable flesh. My uncles were standing bound, guarded by the soldiers, and with them was my grandmother. Then the Governor, Philip, to the eldest of the seven, whose name was Judah, 'Pleasure me, my friend, by eating this excellent meat; 'tis of the most savoury, believe me." My uncle Judah answered, 'I cannot obey thee in this matter, for it is forbidden by the Law.' Philip said, 'Maybe he lacks an appetite. Give him that which shall sharpen his taste.' Thereupon the executioner stepped forth with his lash, and gave him ten stripes. 'Dost though feel hungry now?' said the Governor. 'I had sooner starve,' said Judah, 'than eat the abominable thing.' 'Nay,' cried the Governor, 'miscall not the good things which are provided for you at the charge of thy lord the King.' Then he said to the executioner, 'This fellow uses not his tongue for any good purpose, but only to rail against my lord. Cut it out, therefore.' So they cut the tongue out of my uncle's mouth; and after that they cut off his hands and his feet. And afterwards, he being yet alive, they put him in a pan and burnt him over the fire. Then the Governor said to the second in age, whose name was Eleazer, 'Ah! friend, like you this better than the swine's flesh? You may have your [139] choice, if you will.' But he answered nothing. Then they tortured him most cruelly till he died. And so they did to all, one after the other. What they did I cannot bear to tell; nor, indeed, do I know the whole truth, for when three had perished in this manner I fainted for the horror of the thing; nor did I come to myself till the sixth was ready to suffer. Him I heard say these words to the Governor—'Be not deceived, or think that our God has abandoned us. He has given us over to your hand because we have offended against Him; nor do we suffer beyond what we have deserved. But as we have not escaped the punishment of our sins, so neither will you, but will perish miserably!' After this he did not speak another word; nay, nor give a sign of pain, but stood steadfast and unmoved.

"When there was but one of the seven left alive, Benjamin by name, the Governor seeing him, and, I take it, having some pity on his youth, for he was fair as a woman, said to him, 'Young man, you see how all these have perished miserably, because of their pride and obstinacy. Learn, then, by their fate to behave yourself more wisely. And hark! I will give you riches, more than you can desire, and promote you to honour, if you will humour my lord the King in this small matter.' Benjamin said, 'Your gifts, my lord, be to another, and your honours to such as are worthy of them; but as for me, I will [140] not depart from the law of my God.' Then Philip said to the mother of the seven, 'Persuade him, for I would not have you left childless, if there is any help. These your sons were stout fellows, and could have done good service for my lord if they had been better advised; and I would fain save this one that is left. Reason with him, then, that he save his life, and that you be not wholly bereaved.' Then the woman said, 'Trust me, my lord; I will reason with him.' Then Philip smiled and said, 'Your wisdom comes somewhat late'; and he whispered to one that stood by, 'You see that I have prevailed at last.' But the man shook his head. Then the woman said to her son, 'O, my child, have pity on me, for I bore for you the pangs of childbirth, and spent on you the labour of nurture, bringing you up to this age. Repay me, therefore, for all that I have done.' Then she paused awhile, and those that stood by scarcely knew what was in her heart. But the young man said, 'Mother, how shall I repay you?' And she answered, 'By remembering that the Lord made heaven and earth, and all that is therein. Depart not from His Law, nor forget Him. Heed not this tormentor, who has power over your body for a short moment; but stand steadfast, as your brethren have stood steadfast; so shall I receive you with them into the everlasting glory.' Then the young man smiled, as a bridegroom might smile when the veil is lifted from the face of his [141] bride, and said, 'Fear not, my mother; so it shall be, the Lord helping me.' As for the Governor, he was mad with rage, and cried to the executioner, 'Smite him, and this fool also.' And the man, who indeed, I take it, was weary of his work, smote the youth and mother, and killed them, dealing each but one blow. So they escaped the torture."

On the following Sabbath Seraiah read to the congregation the story of the Three Children in the fire, and then delivered a stirring address on the faith and courage of the heroic mother and her sons. The people listened with a breathless attention, and when he had finished, drew, so to speak, together that deep sigh of relief which tells the speaker that he has been holding the hearts of his hearers. He was one of those trustful souls who amidst all dangers find their strength in quietness and confidence. But the other leaders of the settlement could not help feeling somewhat anxious as to the future. What was to be the end? This constancy under suffering was grand beyond all praise; but were they and their brethren to stand still and see the religion of their fathers trampled out in blood? Was there no one to strike a blow for their faith and their fatherland? For they could measure the average strength and depth of human nature, and knew that there are ten who are ready to do and dare for one who can suffer and be strong. "Do you remember," said Seraiah to his brother-in-law, as they were [142] talking over the position of affairs after the gathering for worship—"do you remember that day when we fought against the Edomites, how our line crumbled away while we had to stand still as a target for the Edomite arrows, and how it grew solid again in a moment when our general gave the signal to charge? One was ready before to think that half the men were cowards, and then one could almost have sworn that there was not a coward among them. Yes, Azariah, we must strike when the time comes; but when the time will come is more than I can tell."

The next day brought an answer to his question.

The people were dispersing after the usual morning prayer when a stranger was seen hurrying up the pass. Arrived at the top, where a party of the men had gone to meet him, he threw himself breathless on the ground; at the same time he drew a small piece of folded parchment from the pouch which was fastened to his girdle, and handed it to one of the men. It ran thus: "Mattathias to Seraiah, in the wilderness of Bethaven, greeting. Listen to the young man who brings this present without doubting, for he is faithful, and speaks words of truth." In a few moments Seraiah appeared. By this time the messenger had recovered his breath, and was ready to tell his tale.

"What news bring you?" said Seraiah.

"Great news; for the Lord has smitten His [143] enemies hip and thigh by the hand of Mattathias, son of Asmon, and by the hand of his sons."

A murmur of delight ran through the little audience, and every eye brightened at the prospect of action.

"Tell on. We hear!" cried Seraiah.

"May I crave a drink of water? for the way is long, and I have been travelling since the sun set yesterday."

The water was fetched. When he had quenched his thirst, young Asaph—that was the messenger's name—began his story.

"You know Mattathias, the son of Asmon, and the five young men, his sons, how they dwelt at Modin? Two months since, Philip the Phrygian—may the Lord cut him off in his sins!" and the speaker paused, and spat upon the ground to emphasize his disgust. "This Phrygian, then, sent one of his officers two months since to build an altar to one of the false gods before whom these children of perdition bow down. So the altar was built, none hindering, for the people were without a leader. This being finished, the Governor's officer proclaimed a sacrifice and a feast to one of the demons whom these heathen worship. I know not the evil thing's name, and if I knew it, would not take the accursed word upon my lips. On the appointed day there was a great gathering of the inhabitants of Modin. It was about the tenth hour [144] when the Governor's deputy came, with his trumpeters and a small company of soldiers—it may be a score. When he had taken his seat the ministers brought up the ox that was for the sacrifice, a great beast, altogether white; and they had gilded his horns and put garlands of flowers about his neck, as their custom is. Then the deputy called to one Menahem, a usurer that dwelt in the village, and one of those who would sell their souls for a shekel. 'Menon,' he said—for they had changed his name after their fashion to one of their own tongue—'Menon, come forth, and do your office.' And then he turned to the people, and said, 'Hearken to me, ye Jews. This Menon here, who is known to all of us, has been promoted to great honour, for my lord Philip, who is the lieutenant of the Divine Antiochus, has made him priest. Honour him henceforth accordingly. And be sure also that if you are obedient, and give up your own dull and senseless superstition, and worship henceforth as the King commands, it shall be well with you and your children.' When he had ended, the fellow approached the altar, and cut some hairs from the forehead of the beast, and sprinkled some meal mingled with salt between its horns. And it chanced, or, I should rather say, it was ordered of the Lord, that as the man did this Mattathias and his sons passed by on the outskirts of the crowd. And when he perceived the abominable thing that was being done, and that he who [145] did it was a Jew, his spirit was moved within him. Then he ran forward, he and his sons with him. And when they were come into the space before the altar the old man cried, 'He that is on the Lord's side come hither!' And some threescore of the people that were there came to him, and the rest stood still, and did nothing, for they knew that the sons of Asmon were mighty men of valour. As for the deputy and his soldiers, they were astonished beyond measure, and before they came to themselves some of the company of Mattathias rushed upon them and disarmed them. But Mattathias himself, with Judas his son, laid hold on Menahem. Then that miserable creature fell on his knees and begged for pardon; saying that he had done this thing on compulsion. 'Nay,' said Mattathias, 'the compulsion was of thy own evil and greedy heart. Thou hast sinned beyond all mercy of man; but the mercies of the Lord are past all measure. Die thou must; but I would have thee die in the faith of a son of Israel.' Then the poor wretch—I had never thought to pity him, for he turned my own mother, when she lay dying, on to the public road, but no one could have refused him pity then—the wretch, I say, repeated with a stammering tongue, 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one Lord.' And now he said, 'I give thee for thy prayers to the All-Merciful, till the shadow of this staff come so far,' and he planted a staff in the ground. And [146] when the time was spent, the old man took his sword, and sheared off the wretch's head with one blow. I had not thought that there was such strength in his arm. Then they brought the deputy and his soldiers to Mattathias. First he dealt with the deputy. 'Slay him,' he said, 'for he has made the people of the Lord to transgress.' So they slew him. Then they made the soldiers stand before him. Four out of their number were Jews. These he commanded to be slain, after giving them the same grace that he had given to Menahem. To the others he said, 'You have not sinned as these your fellows, for you were born in darkness. Take, therefore, your choice: depart, and take good heed not to fall into our hands again, for, if you so fall, you die without further mercy; or, if ye will, stay with us. Only you must follow our ways, so far as it is commanded that the stranger should follow them.' Half chose to depart, and half to stay.

"After this, Mattathias chose some of the young men to go as messengers to the villages round about, and carry the tidings of what had been done, and to say, 'The Lord hath lifted up His ensign; gather yourselves together unto it.' Also he appointed a place where they should meet—that is to say, Michmash."

"And when may we look for his coming?' asked Seraiah.

[147] "Doubtless he will come to-morrow."

That night there was much rejoicing in the little colony. No one, indeed, deceived himself with the thought that he could look forward to easy and pleasant days. All knew perfectly well that a time of struggle and suffering was before them. But there was hope. The darkness had parted, and they saw a far-off gleam of light. At the least they would have the chance of striking a blow for their country and their God.


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