“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 honours; 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 to 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 honours 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.”