THAT EVENING, before sunset, some women were washing clothes on the upper step of the flight that led down into the basin of the Pool of Siloam. They knelt each before a broad bowl of earthenware. A girl at the foot of the steps kept them supplied with water, and sang while she filled the jar. The song was cheerful, and no doubt lightened their labor. Occasionally they would sit upon their heels, and look up the slope of Ophel, and round to the summit of what is now the Mount of Offence, then faintly glorified by the dying sun.
While they plied their hands, rubbing and wringing the clothes in the bowls, two other women came to them, each with an empty jar upon her shoulder.
“Peace to you,” one of the new-comers said.
The laborers paused, sat up, wrung the water from their hands, and returned the salutation.
“It is nearly night—time to quit.”
“There is no end to work,” was the reply.
“But there is a time to rest, and—”
“To hear what may be passing,” interposed another.
“What news have you?”
“Then you have not heard?”
“They say the Christ is born,” said the newsmonger, plunging into her story.
It was curious to see the faces of the laborers brighten with interest; on the other side down came the jars, which, in a moment, were turned into seats for their owners.
“The Christ!” the listeners cried.
“So they say.”
“Everybody; it is common talk.”
“Does anybody believe it?”
“This afternoon three men came across Brook Cedron on the road from Shechem,” the speaker replied, circumstantially, intending to smother doubt. “Each one of them rode a camel spotless white, and larger than any ever before seen in Jerusalem.”
The eyes and mouths of the auditors opened wide.
“To prove how great and rich the men were,” the narrator continued, “they sat under awnings of silk; the buckles of their saddles were of gold, as was the fringe of their bridles; the bells were of silver, and made real music. Nobody knew them; they looked as if they had come from the ends of the world. Only one of them spoke, and of everybody on the road, even the women and children, he asked this question—‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’ No one gave them answer—no one understood what they meant; so they passed on, leaving behind them this saying: ‘For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.’ They put the question to the Roman at the gate; and he, no wiser than the simple people on the road, sent them up to Herod.”
“Where are they now?”
“At the khan. Hundreds have been to look at them already, and hundreds more are going.”
“Who are they?”
“Nobody knows. They are said to be Persians—wise men who talk with the stars—prophets, it may be, like Elijah and Jeremiah.”
“What do they mean by King of the Jews?”
“The Christ, and that he is just born.”
One of the women laughed, and resumed her work, saying, “Well, when I see him I will believe.”
Another followed her example: “And I—well, when I see him raise the dead, I will believe.”
A third said, quietly, “He has been a long time promised. It will be enough for me to see him heal one leper.”
And the party sat talking until the night came, and, with the help of the frosty air, drove them home.
Later in the evening, about the beginning of the first watch, there was an assemblage in the palace on Mount Zion, of probably fifty persons, who never came together except by order of Herod, and then only when he had demanded to know some one or more of the deeper mysteries of the Jewish law and history. It was, in short, a meeting of the teachers of the colleges, of the chief priests, and of the doctors most noted in the city for learning—the leaders of opinion, expounders of the different creeds; princes of the Sadducees; Pharisaic debaters; calm, soft-spoken, stoical philosophers of the Essene socialists.
The chamber in which the session was held belonged to one of the interior court-yards of the palace, and was quite large and Romanesque. The floor was tessellated with marble blocks; the walls, unbroken by a window, were frescoed in panels of saffron yellow; a divan occupied the centre of the apartment, covered with cushions of bright-yellow cloth, and fashioned in form of the letter U, the opening towards the doorway; in the arch of the divan, or, as it were, in the bend of the letter, there was an immense bronze tripod, curiously inlaid with gold and silver, over which a chandelier dropped from the ceiling, having seven arms, each holding a lighted lamp. The divan and the lamp were purely Jewish.
The company sat upon the divan after the style of Orientals, in costume singularly uniform, except as to color. They were mostly men advanced in years; immense beards covered their faces; to their large noses were added the effects of large black eyes, deeply shaded by bold brows; their demeanor was grave, dignified, even patriarchal. In brief, their session was that of the Sanhedrim.
He who sat before the tripod, however, in the place which may be called the head of the divan, having all the rest of his associates on his right and left, and, at the same time, before him, evidently president of the meeting, would have instantly absorbed the attention of a spectator. He had been cast in large mould, but was now shrunken and stooped to ghastliness; his white robe dropped from his shoulders in folds that gave no hint of muscle or anything but an angular skeleton. His hands, half concealed by sleeves of silk, white and crimson striped, were clasped upon his knees. When he spoke, sometimes the first finger of the right hand extended tremulously; he seemed incapable of other gesture. But his head was a splendid dome. A few hairs, whiter than fine-drawn silver, fringed the base; over a broad, full-sphered skull the skin was drawn close, and shone in the light with positive brilliance; the temples were deep hollows, from which the forehead beetled like a wrinkled crag; the eyes were wan and dim; the nose was pinched; and all the lower face was muffed in a beard flowing and venerable as Aaron’s. Such was Hillel the Babylonian! The line of prophets, long extinct in Israel, was now succeeded by a line of scholars, of whom he was first in learning—a prophet in all but the divine inspiration! At the age of one hundred and six, he was still Rector of the Great College.
On the table before him lay outspread a roll or volume of parchment inscribed with Hebrew characters; behind him, in waiting, stood a page richly habited.
There had been discussion, but at this moment of introduction the company had reached a conclusion; each one was in an attitude of rest, and the venerable Hillel, without moving, called the page.
The youth advanced respectfully.
“Go tell the king we are ready to give him answer.”
The boy hurried away.
After a time two officers entered and stopped, one on each side the door; after them slowly followed a most striking personage—an old man clad in a purple robe bordered with scarlet, and girt to his waist by a band of gold linked so fine that it was pliable as leather; the latchets of his shoes sparkled with precious stones; a narrow crown wrought in filigree shone outside a tarbooshe of softest crimson plush, which, encasing his head, fell down the neck and shoulders, leaving the throat and neck exposed. Instead of a seal, a dagger dangled from his belt. He walked with a halting step, leaning heavily upon a staff. Not until he reached the opening of the divan, did he pause or look up from the floor; then, as for the first time conscious of the company, and roused by their presence, he raised himself, and looked haughtily round, like one startled and searching for an enemy—so dark, suspicious, and threatening was the glance. Such was Herod the Great—a body broken by diseases, a conscience seared with crimes, a mind magnificently capable, a soul fit for brotherhood with the Cæsars; now seven-and-sixty years old, but guarding his throne with a jealousy never so vigilant, a power never so despotic, and a cruelty never so inexorable.
There was a general movement on the part of the assemblage—a bending forward in salaam by the more aged, a rising-up by the more courtierly, followed by low genuflections, hands upon the beard or breast.
His observations taken, Herod moved on until at the tripod opposite the venerable Hillel, who met his cold glance with an inclination of the head, and a slight lifting of the hands.
“The answer!” said the king, with imperious simplicity, addressing Hillel, and planting his staff before him with both hands. “The answer!”
The eyes of the patriarch glowed mildly, and, raising his head, and looking the inquisitor full in the face, he answered, his associates giving him closest attention,
“With thee, O king, be the peace of God, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!”
His manner was that of invocation; changing it, he resumed:
“Thou hast demanded of us where the Christ should be born.”
The king bowed, though the evil eyes remained fixed upon the sage’s face.
“That is the question.”
“Then, O king, speaking for myself, and all my brethren here, not one dissenting, I say, in Bethlehem of Judea.”
Hillel glanced at the parchment on the tripod; and, pointing with his tremulous finger, continued, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet, ‘And thou, Bethlehem, in the land of Judea, art not the least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall come a governor that shall rule my people Israel.’”
Herod’s face was troubled, and his eyes fell upon the parchment while he thought. Those beholding him scarcely breathed; they spoke not, nor did he. At length he turned about and left the chamber.
“Brethren,” said Hillel, “we are dismissed.”
The company then arose, and in groups departed.
“Simeon,” said Hillel again.
A man, quite fifty years old, but in the hearty prime of life, answered and came to him.
“Take up the sacred parchment, my son; roll it tenderly.”
The order was obeyed.
“Now lend me thy arm; I will to the litter.”
The strong man stooped; with his withered hands the old one took the offered support, and, rising, moved feebly to the door.
So departed the famous Rector, and Simeon, his son, who was to be his successor in wisdom, learning, and office.
Yet later in the evening the wise men were lying in a lewen of the khan awake. The stones which served them as pillows raised their heads so they could look out of the open arch into the depths of the sky; and as they watched the twinkling of the stars, they thought of the next manifestation. How would it come? What would it be? They were in Jerusalem at last; they had asked at the gate for Him they sought; they had borne witness of his birth; it remained only to find him; and as to that, they placed all trust in the Spirit. Men listening for the voice of God, or waiting a sign from Heaven, cannot sleep.
While they were in this condition, a man stepped in under the arch, darkening the lewen.
“Awake!” he said to them; “I bring you a message which will not be put off.”
They all sat up.
“From whom?” asked the Egyptian.
“Herod the king.”
Each one felt his spirit thrill.
“Are you not the steward of the khan?” Balthasar asked next.
“What would the king with us?”
“His messenger is without; let him answer.”
“Tell him, then, to abide our coming.”
“You were right, O my brother!” said the Greek, when the steward was gone. “The question put to the people on the road, and to the guard at the gate, has given us quick notoriety. I am impatient; let us up quickly.”
They arose, put on their sandals, girt their mantles about them, and went out.
“I salute you, and give you peace, and pray your pardon; but my master, the king, has sent me to invite you to the palace, where he would have speech with you privately.”
Thus the messenger discharged his duty.
A lamp hung in the entrance, and by its light they looked at each other, and knew the Spirit was upon them. Then the Egyptian stepped to the steward, and said, so as not to be heard by the others, “You know where our goods are stored in the court, and where our camels are resting. While we are gone, make all things ready for our departure, if it should be needful.”
“Go your way assured; trust me,” the steward replied.
“The king’s will is our will,” said Balthasar to the messenger. “We will follow you.”
The streets of the Holy City were narrow then as now, but not so rough and foul; for the great builder, not content with beauty, enforced cleanliness and convenience also. Following their guide, the brethren proceeded without a word. Through the dim starlight, made dimmer by the walls on both sides, sometimes almost lost under bridges connecting the house-tops, out of a low ground they ascended a hill. At last they came to a portal reared across the way. In the light of fires blazing before it in two great braziers, they caught a glimpse of the structure, and also of some guards leaning motionlessly upon their arms. They passed into a building unchallenged. Then by passages and arched halls; through courts, and under colonnades not always lighted; up long flights of stairs, past innumerable cloisters and chambers, they were conducted into a tower of great height. Suddenly the guide halted, and, pointing through an open door, said to them,
“Enter. The king is there.”
The air of the chamber was heavy with the perfume of sandal-wood, and all the appointments within were effeminately rich. Upon the floor, covering the central space, a tufted rug was spread, and upon that a throne was set. The visitors had but time, however, to catch a confused idea of the place—of carved and gilt ottomans and couches; of fans and jars and musical instruments; of golden candlesticks glittering in their own lights; of walls painted in the style of the voluptuous Grecian school, one look at which had made a Pharisee hide his head with holy horror. Herod, sitting upon the throne to receive them, clad as when at the conference with the doctors and lawyers, claimed all their minds.
At the edge of the rug, to which they advanced uninvited, they prostrated themselves. The king touched a bell. An attendant came in, and placed three stools before the throne.
“Seat yourselves,” said the monarch, graciously.
“From the North Gate,” he continued, when they were at rest, “I had this afternoon report of the arrival of three strangers, curiously mounted, and appearing as if from far countries. Are you the men?”
The Egyptian took the sign from the Greek and the Hindoo, and answered, with the profoundest salaam, “Were we other than we are, the mighty Herod, whose fame is as incense to the whole world, would not have sent for us. We may not doubt that we are the strangers.”
Herod acknowledged the speech with a wave of the hand.
“Who are you? Whence do you come?” he asked, adding significantly, “Let each speak for himself.”
In turn they gave him account, referring simply to the cities and lands of their birth, and the routes by which they came to Jerusalem. Somewhat disappointed, Herod plied them more directly.
“What was the question you put to the officer at the gate?”
“We asked him, Where is he that is born King of the Jews.”
“I see now why the people were so curious. You excite me no less. Is there another King of the Jews?”
The Egyptian did not blanch.
“There is one newly born.”
An expression of pain knit the dark face of the monarch, as if his mind were swept by a harrowing recollection.
“Not to me, not to me!” he exclaimed.
Possibly the accusing images of his murdered children flitted before him; recovering from the emotion, whatever it was, he asked, steadily, “Where is the new king?”
“That, O king, is what we would ask.”
“You bring me a wonder—a riddle surpassing any of Solomon’s,” the inquisitor said next. “As you see, I am in the time of life when curiosity is as ungovernable as it was in childhood, when to trifle with it is cruelty. Tell me further, and I will honor you as kings honor each other. Give me all you know about the newly born, and I will join you in the search for him; and when we have found him, I will do what you wish; I will bring him to Jerusalem, and train him in kingcraft; I will use my grace with Cæsar for his promotion and glory. Jealousy shall not come between us, so I swear. But tell me first how, so widely separated by seas and deserts, you all came to hear of him.”
“I will tell you truly, O king.”
“Speak on,” said Herod.
Balthasar raised himself erect, and said, solemnly,
“There is an Almighty God.”
Herod was visibly startled.
“He bade us come hither, promising that we should find the Redeemer of the World; that we should see and worship him, and bear witness that he was come; and, as a sign, we were each given to see a star. His Spirit stayed with us. O king, his Spirit is with us now!”
An overpowering feeling seized the three. The Greek with difficulty restrained an outcry. Herod’s gaze darted quickly from one to the other; he was more suspicious and dissatisfied than before.
“You are mocking me,” he said. “If not, tell me more. What is to follow the coming of the new king?”
“The salvation of men.”
“By the divine agencies—Faith, Love, and Good Works.”
“Then”—Herod paused, and from his look no man could have said with what feeling he continued—“you are the heralds of the Christ. Is that all?”
Balthasar bowed low.
“We are your servants, O king.”
The monarch touched a bell, and the attendant appeared.
“Bring the gifts,” the master said.
The attendant went out, but in a little while returned, and, kneeling before the guests, gave to each one an outer robe or mantle of scarlet and blue, and a girdle of gold. They acknowledged the honors with Eastern prostrations.
“A word further,” said Herod, when the ceremony was ended. “To the officer of the gate, and but now to me, you spoke of seeing a star in the east.”
“Yes,” said Balthasar, “his star, the star of the newly born.”
“What time did it appear?”
“When we were bidden come hither.”
Herod arose, signifying the audience was over. Stepping from the throne towards them, he said, with all graciousness,
“If, as I believe, O illustrious men, you are indeed the heralds of the Christ just born, know that I have this night consulted those wisest in things Jewish, and they say with one voice he should be born in Bethlehem of Judea. I say to you, go thither; go and search diligently for the young child; and when you have found him bring me word again, that I may come and worship him. To your going there shall be no let or hindrance. Peace be with you!”
And, folding his robe about him, he left the chamber.
Directly the guide came, and led them back to the street, and thence to the khan, at the portal of which the Greek said, impulsively, “Let us to Bethlehem, O brethren, as the king has advised.”
“Yes,” cried the Hindoo. “The Spirit burns within me.”
“Be it so,” said Balthasar, with equal warmth. “The camels are ready.”
They gave gifts to the steward, mounted into their saddles, received directions to the Joppa Gate, and departed. At their approach the great valves were unbarred, and they passed out into the open country, taking the road so lately travelled by Joseph and Mary. As they came up out of Hinnom, on the plain of Rephaim, a light appeared, at first wide-spread and faint. Their pulses fluttered fast. The light intensified rapidly; they closed their eyes against its burning brilliance: when they dared look again, lo! the star, perfect as any in the heavens, but low down and moving slowly before them. And they folded their hands, and shouted, and rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
“God is with us! God is with us!” they repeated, in frequent cheer, all the way, until the star, rising out of the valley beyond Mar Elias, stood still over a house up on the slope of the hill near the town.