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The Hammer by  Alfred J. Church

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IN JERUSALEM

[235] AMONG those who watched the approach of Judas and his host to Jerusalem were two men, one in extreme old age, the other numbering, it would seem, about fifty years. They wore the priestly garments, old indeed and threadbare, but still clean and showing many signs of careful repair. Theirs was a strange history. For two years they had been in hiding in the city. When Apollonius had filled the streets of Jerusalem with blood, the murderers had sought with especial care for all priests and Levites. To them at least no mercy was to be shown. These two men—Shemaiah was the name of the elder of the two, and Joel that of the younger—had narrowly escaped death from the soldiers of Apollonius. They had taken refuge—so close was the pursuit—in a garden, the gate of which happened to be open, and had hidden themselves in the bushes till nightfall. Where they were, who or of what [236] race was the owner of the house, whether they were likely to meet with more mercy from his hands than they could expect from the soldiers, they knew not. But that hiding-place was their only chance, and in their desperate strait they snatched at it. While they were debating in whispers whether they should throw themselves on the compassion of this unknown person, they saw—for it was a moonlight night—the figure of a woman walking down a path which passed close by their hiding-place. They could see from her features, which the brilliant moonlight of the East lighted up, that she was a countrywoman of their own, and they resolved to appeal to her for protection. Shemaiah, whose age and venerable appearance would, they judged, be less likely to alarm, threw himself on the ground at her feet. She started back in astonishment.

"Lady," he said, "I see that you are a daughter of Abraham. Can you help two servants of the Lord that have so far escaped from the sword of the Greeks?"

She was reassured by a nearer view of the speaker. "Who are you?" she said. "Speak without fear, for there is no one to harm you."

Shemaiah told his story.

"And your companion," said Eglah—for that was the woman's name—"where is he?"

The old man called to Joel, who came forth at his bidding from his hiding-place.

[237] Eglah stood for a few minutes buried in thought. Then she spoke.

"As I hope that the Lord will have mercy on me and pardon my sin, so will I help you even to the giving up of my life. But I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Now listen to my story. When Antiochus—the Lord reward him for the evil that he has done to His people!—came to this city, I was seized and sold for a slave. And a certain Greek soldier, Glaucus by name, the captain of a company, bought me in the market. He had compassion on me, and dealt honourably with me, and made me his wife after the fashion of his people. And I consented to live with him, though I knew that it was a sin for a daughter of Abraham to be wife unto a man that was a heathen. But alas! sirs, what was I to do? for I was a weak woman, and there was no one, to help me. Should I have slain him in his sleep, as Judith slew Holofernes? Once I thought to do so, and I took a dagger in my hand, but when I saw him I repented. Whether it was fear or love that turned me I know not. That I was afraid I know, for the very sight of the steel made me tremble. And I must confess that I loved him also, for he had been very kind and gentle with me; and there is not a goodlier man to look at in all Jerusalem."

"Be comforted, my daughter," said Shemaiah, whose years had taught him a tolerance to which [238] his younger companion had, perhaps, scarcely attained. " 'Tis at least no sin for a wife to love her husband."

"Then you do not think me so wicked as to be beyond all hope?" cried poor Eglah, eagerly.

"Nay, my daughter," said the old man; "you were in a sore strait, and all women are not as Judith was."

"Then you will not refuse to come into my house? I have a large cellar where you can lie hid. 'Tis under the ground, indeed, but airy and dry, and you can make shift to live there. And I will feed you as best I may. My husband has an open hand, and never makes any question as to the money that I spend upon the house, and he will not know what I have done. I judge it best to keep the thing from him, not because I fear that he would betray you—for he is an honourable man and kindly, but it would go hard with him, being an officer in the army of the King, if it should be discovered that he knew it."

And so for two years Shemaiah and Joel had inhabited the cellar in Eglah's house. Glaucus, the husband, was just the kindly, generous man whom his wife had described. Once or twice he had terrified her by some joking remark about the rapidity with which the provision purchased for the house disappeared. "When we dine together, my darling," he said, on one occasion, "you eat what would be scarce enough for a well-favoured fly; [239] but I am glad to think that you are hungry at other times." "O husband," she said, "there are many poor of my own people, and I cannot deny them." She hoped as she said it that the falsehood would not be counted as another sin against her. "Nay, nay, darling," said the good-natured man. "Give as much as thou wilt. Thank the gods and his Highness the King I have enough and to spare."

Glaucus, though allowed to lie in his own house, had, of course, to spend much time upon his military duties, and was, consequently, often away. During his absence Eglah could bring out the two prisoners from their underground lodging, and allow them to enjoy the fresh air of the garden, which, happily, was not overlooked. She gave them the best food that her means would procure, and at the same time took pains, as has been said, to keep their garments scrupulously clean and neat. On the whole they passed the time of their captivity in tolerable comfort, and without much injury to their health. Latterly they had been cheered by the tidings, always given to them at the very earliest opportunity by their hostess, of the successes of Judas. Within the last few days Glaucus had told his wife that a decisive battle was expected, that it would probably be fought at Beth-zur, and that if her countrymen won it, there was nothing that could hinder them from taking possession of Jerusalem.

[240] Glaucus, who held a command in the garrison of the fort, had not been with Lysias at Beth-zur, but he had heard late on the evening of the day of the result of the battle and had, of course, told it to his wife, and she in turn had communicated it to her inmates. They had been scarcely able to sleep for joy, and had eagerly waited for news of the conqueror's approach. Evening was come, and Eglah had not paid them the accustomed visit. The house was curiously silent; all day not a sound of voices or steps had reached their ears. And now the suspense had become unbearable. "Go forth," said Shemaiah to his younger companion, "go forth, and bring me word again." Joel crept out of his retreat. The streets were deserted; but the fortress was crowded. The garrison stood thickly clustered on the walls, and with them were many inhabitants of the city. It was easy to guess that what Glaucus had foretold had happened. Judas was on his way to take possession of Jerusalem, and all who had compromised themselves by resisting him, had either fled from the place altogether or had taken refuge in the fort. He returned to Shemaiah with a description of what he had seen, and the two at once hastened down to the walls to greet the deliverers.

The sun was near its setting when they entered the city. Without turning to the right or left, though many must have been consumed with [241] anxiety to hear the fate of kinsmen and friends, they marched to Mount Sion. It was an hour of triumph, the fruition of hopes passionately cherished through many a dark day of sorrow. To stand once more in the place which God had chosen to set His name there, how glorious. But it had its bitterness, as such hours will have, for it was a miserable sight that greeted them. Nothing, indeed, had been done of which they had not heard. There was nothing that they might not have expected or foreseen. Yet the actual view of the holy place in its dismal forlornness overpowered them. It was as if the sight had come upon them by surprise. "When they saw the Sanctuary desolate and the altar profane, and the gates burnt with fire, and shrubs growing in the courts as in a forest or one of the mountains, and the chambers of the priests pulled down, they rent their clothes, and made great lamentations, and cast ashes upon their heads, and fell down flat to the ground upon their faces."

To repair this ruin, to put an end to this desolation, to purify the place which had been so shamefully polluted, was the first duty of the deliverers. But that the work might be done in peace it was necessary that the fortress of Acra, to use military language, should be masked. A strong force was told off to perform this duty; the rest would lend their aid to the great work of purification.


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