DURING the third hour the road in front of the resting-place of the lepers became gradually more and more frequented by people going in the direction of Bethphage and Bethany; now, however, about the commencement of the fourth hour, a great crowd appeared over the crest of Olivet, and as it defiled down the road thousands in number, the two watchers noticed with wonder that every one in it carried a palm-branch freshly cut. As they sat absorbed by the novelty, the noise of another multitude approaching from the east drew their eyes that way. Then the mother awoke Tirzah.
“What is the meaning of it all?” the latter asked.
“He is coming,” answered the mother. “These we see are from the city going to meet him; those we hear in the east are his friends bearing him company; and it will not be strange if the processions meet here before us.
“I fear, if they do, we cannot be heard.”
The same thought was in the elder’s mind.
“Amrah,” she asked, “when Judah spoke of the healing of the ten, in what words did he say they called to the Nazarene?”
“Either they said, ‘Lord, have mercy upon us,’ or ‘Master, have mercy.’”
“No more that I heard.”
“Yet it was enough,” the mother added, to herself.
“Yes,” said Amrah, “Judah said he saw them go away well.”
Meantime the people in the east came up slowly. When at length the foremost of them were in sight, the gaze of the lepers fixed upon a man riding in the midst of what seemed a chosen company which sang and danced about him in extravagance of joy. The rider was bareheaded and clad all in white. When he was in distance to be more clearly observed, these, looking anxiously, saw an olive-hued face shaded by long chestnut hair slightly sunburned and parted in the middle. He looked neither to the right nor left. In the noisy abandon of his followers he appeared to have no part; nor did their favor disturb him in the least, or raise him out of the profound melancholy into which, as his countenance showed, he was plunged. The sun beat upon the back of his head, and lighting up the floating hair gave it a delicate likeness to a golden nimbus. Behind him the irregular procession, pouring forward with continuous singing and shouting, extended out of view. There was no need of any one to tell the lepers that this was he—the wonderful Nazarene!
“He is here, Tirzah,” the mother said; “he is here. Come, my child.”
As she spoke she glided in front of the white rock and fell upon her knees.
Directly the daughter and servant were by her side. Then at sight of the procession in the west, the thousands from the city halted, and began to wave their green branches, shouting, or rather chanting (for it was all in one voice),
“Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord!”
And all the thousands who were of the rider’s company, both those near and those afar, replied so the air shook with the sound, which was as a great wind threshing the side of the hill. Amidst the din, the cries of the poor lepers were not more than the twittering of dazed sparrows.
The moment of the meeting of the hosts was come, and with it the opportunity the sufferers were seeking; if not taken, it would be lost forever, and they would be lost as well.
“Nearer, my child—let us get nearer. He cannot hear us,” said the mother.
She arose, and staggered forward. Her ghastly hands were up, and she screamed with horrible shrillness. The people saw her—saw her hideous face, and stopped awe-struck—an effect for which extreme human misery, visible as in this instance, is as potent as majesty in purple and gold. Tirzah, behind her a little way, fell down too faint and frightened to follow farther.
“The lepers! the lepers!”
“The accursed of God! Kill them!”
These, with other yells of like import, broke in upon the hosannas of the part of the multitude too far removed to see and understand the cause of the interruption. Some there were, however, near by familiar with the nature of the man to whom the unfortunates were appealing—some who, by long intercourse with him, had caught somewhat of his divine compassion: they gazed at him, and were silent while, in fair view, he rode up and stopped in front of the woman. She also beheld his face—calm, pitiful, and of exceeding beauty, the large eyes tender with benignant purpose.
And this was the colloquy that ensued:
“O Master, Master! Thou seest our need; thou canst make us clean. Have mercy upon us—mercy!”
“Believest thou I am able to do this?” he asked.
“Thou art he of whom the prophets spake—thou art the Messiah!” she replied.
His eyes grew radiant, his manner confident.
“Woman,” he said, “great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”
He lingered an instant after, apparently unconscious of the presence of the throng—an instant—then he rode away.
To the heart divinely original, yet so human in all the better elements of humanity, going with sure prevision to a death of all the inventions of men the foulest and most cruel, breathing even then in the forecast shadow of the awful event, and still as hungry and thirsty for love and faith as in the beginning, how precious and ineffably soothing the farewell exclamation of the grateful woman:
“To God in the highest, glory! Blessed, thrice blessed, the Son whom he hath given us!”
Immediately both the hosts, that from the city and that from Bethphage, closed around him with their joyous demonstrations, with hosannas and waving of palms, and so he passed from the lepers forever. Covering her head, the elder hastened to Tirzah, and folded her in her arms, crying, “Daughter, look up! I have his promise; he is indeed the Messiah. We are saved—saved!” And the two remained kneeling while the procession, slowly going, disappeared over the mount. When the noise of its singing afar was a sound scarcely heard the miracle began.
There was first in the hearts of the lepers a freshening of the blood; then it flowed faster and stronger, thrilling their wasted bodies with an infinitely sweet sense of painless healing. Each felt the scourge going from her; their strength revived; they were returning to be themselves. Directly, as if to make the purification complete, from body to spirit the quickening ran, exalting them to a very fervor of ecstasy. The power possessing them to this good end was most nearly that of a draught of swift and happy effect; yet it was unlike and superior in that its healing and cleansing were absolute, and not merely a delicious consciousness while in progress, but the planting, growing, and maturing all at once of a recollection so singular and so holy that the simple thought of it should be of itself ever after a formless yet perfect thanksgiving.
To this transformation—for such it may be called quite as properly as a cure—there was a witness other than Amrah. The reader will remember the constancy with which Ben-Hur had followed the Nazarene throughout his wanderings; and now, recalling the conversation of the night before, there will be little surprise at learning that the young Jew was present when the leprous woman appeared in the path of the pilgrims. He heard her prayer, and saw her disfigured face; he heard the answer also, and was not so accustomed to incidents of the kind, frequent as they had been, as to have lost interest in them. Had such thing been possible with him, still the bitter disputation always excited by the simplest display of the Master’s curative gift would have sufficed to keep his curiosity alive. Besides that, if not above it as an incentive, his hope to satisfy himself upon the vexed question of the mission of the mysterious man was still upon him strong as in the beginning; we might indeed say even stronger, because of a belief that now quickly, before the sun went down, the man himself would make all known by public proclamation. At the close of the scene, consequently, Ben-Hur had withdrawn from the procession, and seated himself upon a stone to wait its passage.
From his place he nodded recognition to many of the people—Galileans in his league, carrying short swords under their long abbas. After a little a swarthy Arab came up leading two horses; at a sign from Ben-Hur he also drew out.
“Stay here,” the young master said, when all were gone by, even the laggards. “I wish to be at the city early, and Aldebaran must do me service.”
He stroked the broad forehead of the horse, now in his prime of strength and beauty, then crossed the road towards the two women.
They were to him, it should be borne in mind, strangers in whom he felt interest only as they were subjects of a superhuman experiment, the result of which might possibly help him to solution of the mystery that had so long engaged him. As he proceeded, he glanced casually at the figure of the little woman over by the white rock, standing there, her face hidden in her hands.
“As the Lord liveth, it is Amrah!” he said to himself.
He hurried on, and passing by the mother and daughter, still without recognizing them, he stopped before the servant.
“Amrah,” he said to her, “Amrah, what do you here?”
She rushed forward, and fell upon her knees before him, blinded by her tears, nigh speechless with contending joy and fear.
“O master, master! Thy God and mine, how good he is!”
The knowledge we gain from much sympathy with others passing through trials is but vaguely understood; strangely enough, it enables us, among other things, to merge our identity into theirs often so completely that their sorrows and their delights become our own. So poor Amrah, aloof and hiding her face, knew the transformation the lepers were undergoing without a word spoken to her—knew it, and shared all their feeling to the full. Her countenance, her words, her whole manner, betrayed her condition; and with swift presentiment he connected it with the women he had just passed: he felt her presence there at that time was in some way associated with them, and turned hastily as they arose to their feet. His heart stood still, he became rooted in his tracks—dumb past outcry—awe-struck.
The woman he had seen before the Nazarene was standing with her hands clasped and eyes streaming, looking towards heaven. The mere transformation would have been a sufficient surprise; but it was the least of the causes of his emotion. Could he be mistaken? Never was there in life a stranger so like his mother; and like her as she was the day the Roman snatched her from him. There was but one difference to mar the identity—the hair of this person was a little streaked with gray; yet that was not impossible of reconcilement, since the intelligence which had directed the miracle might have taken into consideration the natural effects of the passage of years. And who was it by her side, if not Tirzah?—fair, beautiful, perfect, more mature, but in all other respects exactly the same in appearance as when she looked with him over the parapet the morning of the accident to Gratus. He had given them over as dead, and time had accustomed him to the bereavement; he had not ceased mourning for them, yet, as something distinguishable, they had simply dropped out of his plans and dreams. Scarcely believing his senses, he laid his hand upon the servant’s head, and asked, tremulously,
“Amrah, Amrah—my mother! Tirzah! tell me if I see aright.”
“Speak to them, O master, speak to them!” she said.
He waited no longer, but ran, with outstretched arms, crying, “Mother! mother! Tirzah! Here I am!”
They heard his call, and with a cry as loving started to meet him. Suddenly the mother stopped, drew back, and uttered the old alarm,
“Stay, Judah, my son; come not nearer. Unclean, unclean!”
The utterance was not from habit, grown since the dread disease struck her, as much as fear; and the fear was but another form of the ever-thoughtful maternal love. Though they were healed in person, the taint of the scourge might be in their garments ready for communication. He had no such thought. They were before him; he had called them, they had answered. Who or what should keep them from him now? Next moment the three, so long separated, were mingling their tears in each other’s arms.
The first ecstasy over, the mother said, “In this happiness, O my children, let us not be ungrateful. Let us begin life anew by acknowledgment of him to whom we are all so indebted.”
They fell upon their knees, Amrah with the rest; and the prayer of the elder outspoken was as a psalm.
Tirzah repeated it word for word; so did Ben-Hur, but not with the same clear mind and questionless faith; for when they were risen, he asked,
“In Nazareth, where the man was born, mother, they call him the son of a carpenter. What is he?”
Her eyes rested upon him with all their old tenderness, and she answered as she had answered the Nazarene himself—
“He is the Messiah.”
“And whence has he his power?”
“We may know by the use he makes of it. Can you tell me any ill he has done?”
“By that sign then I answer, He has his power from God.”
It is not an easy thing to shake off in a moment the expectations nurtured through years until they have become essentially a part of us; and though Ben-Hur asked himself what the vanities of the world were to such a one, his ambition was obdurate and would not down. He persisted as men do yet every day in measuring the Christ by himself. How much better if we measured ourselves by the Christ!
Naturally, the mother was the first to think of the cares of life.
“What shall we do now, my son? Where shall we go?”
Then Ben-Hur, recalled to duty, observed how completely every trace of the scourge had disappeared from his restored people; that each had back her perfection of person; that, as with Naaman when he came up out of the water, their flesh had come again like unto the flesh of a little child; and he took off his cloak, and threw it over Tirzah.
“Take it,” he said, smiling; “the eye of the stranger would have shunned you before, now it shall not offend you.”
The act exposed a sword belted to his side.
“Is it a time of war?” asked the mother, anxiously.
“Why, then, are you armed?”
“It may be necessary to defend the Nazarene.”
Thus Ben-Hur evaded the whole truth.
“Has he enemies? Who are they?”
“Alas, mother, they are not all Romans!”
“Is he not of Israel, and a man of peace?”
“There was never one more so; but in the opinion of the rabbis and teachers he is guilty of a great crime.”
“In his eyes the uncircumcised Gentile is as worthy favor as a Jew of the strictest habit. He preaches a new dispensation.”
The mother was silent, and they moved to the shade of the tree by the rock. Calming his impatience to have them home again and hear their story, he showed them the necessity of obedience to the law governing in cases like theirs, and in conclusion called the Arab, bidding him take the horses to the gate by Bethesda and await him there; whereupon they set out by the way of the Mount of Offence. The return was very different from the coming; they walked rapidly and with ease, and in good time reached a tomb newly made near that of Absalom, overlooking the depths of Cedron. Finding it unoccupied, the women took possession, while he went on hastily to make the preparations required for their new condition.