The mother resumed her easy position against the cushion, while the son took place on the divan, his head in her lap. Both of them, looking out of the opening, could see a stretch of lower house–tops in the vicinity, a bank of blue–blackness over in the west which they knew to be mountains, and the sky, its shadowy depths brilliant with stars. The city was still. Only the winds stirred.
"Amrah tells me something has happened to you," she said, caressing his cheek. "When my Judah was a child, I allowed small things to trouble him, but he is now a man. He must not forget"— her voice became very soft—"that one day he is to be my hero."
She spoke in the language almost lost in the land, but which a few—and they were always as rich in blood as in possessions— cherished in its purity, that they might be more certainly distinguished from Gentile peoples—the language in which the loved Rebekah and Rachel sang to Benjamin.
The words appeared to set him thinking anew; after a while, however, he caught the hand with which she fanned him, and said, "Today, O my mother, I have been made to think of many things that never had place in my mind before. Tell me, first, what am I to be?"
"Have I not told you? You are to be my hero."
He could not see her face, yet he knew she was in play. He became more serious.
"You are very good, very kind, O my mother. No one will ever love me as you do."
He kissed the hand over and over again.
"I think I understand why you would have me put off the question," he continued. "Thus far my life has belonged to you. How gentle, how sweet your control has been! I wish it could last forever. But that may not be. It is the Lord's will that I shall one day become owner of myself—a day of separation, and therefore a dreadful day to you. Let us be brave and serious. I will be your hero, but you must put me in the way. You know the law—every son of Israel must have some occupation. I am not exempt, and ask now, shall I tend the herds? or till the soil? or drive the saw? or be a clerk or lawyer? What shall I be? Dear, good mother, help me to an answer."
"Gamaliel has been lecturing today," she said, thoughtfully.
"If so, I did not hear him."
"Then you have been walking with Simeon, who, they tell me, inherits the genius of his family."
"No, I have not seen him. I have been up on the Market–place, not to the Temple. I visited the young Messala."
A certain change in his voice attracted the mother's attention. A presentiment quickened the beating of her heart; the fan became motionless again.
"The Messala!" she said. "What could he say to so trouble you?"
"He is very much changed."
"You mean he has come back a Roman."
"Roman!" she continued, half to herself. "To all the world the word means master. How long has he been away?"
She raised her head, and looked off into the night.
"The airs of the Via Sacra are well enough in the streets of the Egyptian and in Babylon; but in Jerusalem—our Jerusalem—the covenant abides."
And, full of the thought, she settled back into her easy place. He was first to speak.
"What Messala said, my mother, was sharp enough in itself; but, taken with the manner, some of the sayings were intolerable."
"I think I understand you. Rome, her poets, orators, senators, courtiers, are mad with affectation of what they call satire."
"I suppose all great peoples are proud," he went on, scarcely noticing the interruption; "but the pride of that people is unlike all others; in these latter days it is so grown the gods barely escape it."
"The gods escape!" said the mother, quickly. "More than one Roman has accepted worship as his divine right."
"Well, Messala always had his share of the disagreeable quality. When he was a child, I have seen him mock strangers whom even Herod condescended to receive with honors; yet he always spared Judea. For the first time, in conversation with me to–day, he trifled with our customs and God. As you would have had me do, I parted with him finally. And now, O my dear mother, I would know with more certainty if there be just ground for the Roman's contempt. In what am I his inferior? Is ours a lower order of people? Why should I, even in Caesar's presence; feel the shrinking of a slave? Tell me especially why, if I have the soul, and so choose, I may not hunt the honors of the world in all its fields? Why may not I take sword and indulge the passion of war? As a poet, why may not I sing of all themes? I can be a worker in metals, a keeper of flocks, a merchant, why not an artist like the Greek? Tell me, O my mother—and this is the sum of my trouble—why may not a son of Israel do all a Roman may?"
The reader will refer these questions back to the conversation in the Market–place; the mother, listening with all her faculties awake, from something which would have been lost upon one less interested in him—from the connections of the subject, the pointing of the questions, possibly his accent and tone—was not less swift in making the same reference. She sat up, and in a voice quick and sharp as his own, replied, "I see, I see! From association Messala, in boyhood, was almost a Jew; had he remained here, he might have become a proselyte, so much do we all borrow from the influences that ripen our lives; but the years in Rome have been too much for him. I do not wonder at the change; yet"—her voice fell—"he might have dealt tenderly at least with you. It is a hard, cruel nature which in youth can forget its first loves."
Her hand dropped lightly upon his forehead, and the fingers caught in his hair and lingered there lovingly, while her eyes sought the highest stars in view. Her pride responded to his, not merely in echo, but in the unison of perfect sympathy. She would answer him; at the same time, not for the world would she have had the answer unsatisfactory: an admission of inferiority might weaken his spirit for life. She faltered with misgivings of her own powers.
"What you propose, O my Judah, is not a subject for treatment by a woman. Let me put its consideration off till to–morrow, and I will have the wise Simeon—"
"Do not send me to the Rector," he said, abruptly.
"I will have him come to us."
"No, I seek more than information; while he might give me that better than you, O my mother, you can do better by giving me what he cannot—the resolution which is the soul of a man's soul."
She swept the heavens with a rapid glance, trying to compass all the meaning of his questions.
"While craving justice for ourselves, it is never wise to be unjust to others. To deny valor in the enemy we have conquered is to underrate our victory; and if the enemy be strong enough to hold us at bay, much more to conquer us"—she hesitated— "self–respect bids us seek some other explanation of our misfortunes than accusing him of qualities inferior to our own."
Thus, speaking to herself rather than to him, she began:
"Take heart, O my son. The Messala is nobly descended; his family has been illustrious through many generations. In the days of Republican Rome—how far back I cannot tell—they were famous, some as soldiers, some as civilians. I can recall but one consul of the name; their rank was senatorial, and their patronage always sought because they were always rich. Yet if to–day your friend boasted of his ancestry, you might have shamed him by recounting yours. If he referred to the ages through which the line is traceable, or to deeds, rank, or wealth—such allusions, except when great occasion demands them, are tokens of small minds—if he mentioned them in proof of his superiority, then without dread, and standing on each particular, you might have challenged him to a comparison of records."
Taking a moment's thought, the mother proceeded:
"One of the ideas of fast hold now is that time has much to do with the nobility of races and families. A Roman boasting his superiority on that account over a son of Israel will always fail when put to the proof. The founding of Rome was his beginning; the very best of them cannot trace their descent beyond that period; few of them pretend to do so; and of such as do, I say not one could make good his claim except by resort to tradition. Messala certainly could not. Let us look now to ourselves. Could we better?"
A little more light would have enabled him to see the pride that diffused itself over her face.
"Let us imagine the Roman putting us to the challenge. I would answer him, neither doubting nor boastful."
Her voice faltered; a tender thought changed the form of the argument.
"Your father, O my Judah, is at rest with his fathers; yet I remember, as though it were this evening, the day he and I, with many rejoicing friends, went up into the Temple to present you to the Lord. We sacrificed the doves, and to the priest I gave your name, which he wrote in my presence—"Judah, son of Ithamar, of the House of Hur." The name was then carried away, and written in a book of the division of records devoted to the saintly family."
"I cannot tell you when the custom of registration in this mode began. We know it prevailed before the flight from Egypt. I have heard Hillel say Abraham caused the record to be first opened with his own name, and the names of his sons, moved by the promises of the Lord which separated him and them from all other races, and made them the highest and noblest, the very chosen of the earth. The covenant with Jacob was of like effect. "In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed"—so said the angel to Abraham in the place Jehovah–jireh. "And the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed"—so the Lord himself said to Jacob asleep at Bethel on the way to Haran. Afterwards the wise men looked forward to a just division of the land of promise; and, that it might be known in the day of partition who were entitled to portions, the Book of Generations was begun. But not for that alone. The promise of a blessing to all the earth through the patriarch reached far into the future. One name was mentioned in connection with the blessing—the benefactor might be the humblest of the chosen family, for the Lord our God knows no distinctions of rank or riches. So, to make the performance clear to men of the generation who were to witness it, and that they might give the glory to whom it belonged, the record was required to be kept with absolute certainty. Has it been so kept?"
The fan played to and fro, until, becoming impatient, he repeated the question, "Is the record absolutely true?"
"Hillel said it was, and of all who have lived no one was so well–informed upon the subject. Our people have at times been heedless of some parts of the law, but never of this part. The good rector himself has followed the Books of Generations through three periods—from the promises to the opening of the Temple; thence to the Captivity; thence, again, to the present. Once only were the records disturbed, and that was at the end of the second period; but when the nation returned from the long exile, as a first duty to God, Zerubbabel restored the Books, enabling us once more to carry the lines of Jewish descent back unbroken fully two thousand years. And now—"
She paused as if to allow the hearer to measure the time comprehended in the statement.
"And now," she continued, "what becomes of the Roman boast of blood enriched by ages? By that test, the sons of Israel watching the herds on old Rephaim yonder are nobler than the noblest of the Marcii."
"And I, mother—by the Books, who am I?"
"What I have said thus far, my son, had reference to your question. I will answer you. If Messala were here, he might say, as others have said, that the exact trace of your lineage stopped when the Assyrian took Jerusalem, and razed the Temple, with all its precious stores; but you might plead the pious action of Zerubbabel, and retort that all verity in Roman genealogy ended when the barbarians from the West took Rome, and camped six months upon her desolated site. Did the government keep family histories? If so, what became of them in those dreadful days? No, no; there is verity in our Books of Generations; and, following them back to the Captivity, back to the foundation of the first Temple, back to the march from Egypt, we have absolute assurance that you are lineally sprung from Hur, the associate of Joshua. In the matter of descent sanctified by time, is not the honor perfect? Do you care to pursue further? if so, take the Torah, and search the Book of Numbers, and of the seventy–two generations after Adam, you can find the very progenitor of your house."
There was silence for a time in the chamber on the roof.
"I thank you, O my mother," Judah next said, clasping both her hands in his; "I thank you with all my heart. I was right in not having the good rector called in; he could not have satisfied me more than you have. Yet to make a family truly noble, is time alone sufficient?"
"Ah, you forget, you forget; our claim rests not merely upon time; the Lord's preference is our especial glory."
"You are speaking of the race, and I, mother, of the family—our family. In the years since Father Abraham, what have they achieved? What have they done? What great things to lift them above the level of their fellows?"
She hesitated, thinking she might all this time have mistaken his object. The information he sought might have been for more than satisfaction of wounded vanity. Youth is but the painted shell within which, continually growing, lives that wondrous thing the spirit of man, biding its moment of apparition, earlier in some than in others. She trembled under a perception that this might be the supreme moment come to him; that as children at birth reach out their untried hands grasping for shadows, and crying the while, so his spirit might, in temporary blindness, be struggling to take hold of its impalpable future. They to whom a boy comes asking, Who am I, and what am I to be? have need of ever so much care. Each word in answer may prove to the after–life what each finger–touch of the artist is to the clay he is modelling.
"I have a feeling, O my Judah," she said, patting his cheek with the hand he had been caressing—"I have the feeling that all I have said has been in strife with an antagonist more real than imaginary. If Messala is the enemy, do not leave me to fight him in the dark. Tell me all he said."