The men flared their torches while they stared at each other.
“Unclean, unclean!” came from the corner again, a slow tremulous wail, exceedingly sorrowful. With such a cry we can imagine a spirit vanishing from the gates of Paradise, looking back the while.
So the widow and mother performed her duty, and in the moment realized that the freedom she had prayed for and dreamed of, fruit of scarlet and gold seen afar, was but an apple of Sodom in the hand.
She and Tirzah were- LEPERS! Possibly the reader does not know all the word means. Let him be told it with reference to the Law of that time, only a little modified in this.
“These four are accounted as dead- the blind, the leper, the poor, and the childless.” Thus the Talmud.
That is, to be a leper was to be treated as dead- to be excluded from the city as a corpse; to be spoken to by the best beloved and most loving only at a distance; to dwell with none but lepers; to be utterly unprivileged; to be denied the rites of the Temple and the synagogue; to go about in rent garments and with covered mouth, except when crying, “Unclean, unclean!” to find home in the wilderness or in abandoned tombs; to become a materialized spectre of Hinnom and Gehenna; to be at all times less a living offence to others than a breathing torment to self; afraid to die, yet without hope except in death.
Once- she might not tell the day or the year, for down in the haunted hell even time was lost- once the mother felt a dry scurf in the palm of her right hand, a trifle which she tried to wash, away. It clung to the member pertinaciously; yet she thought but little of the sign till Tirzah complained that she, too, was attacked in the same way. The supply of water was scant, and they denied themselves drink that they might use it as a curative. At length the whole hand was attacked; the skin cracked open, the finger-nails loosened from the flesh. There was not much pain withal, chiefly a steadily increasing discomfort. Later their lips began to parch and seam. One day the mother, who was cleanly to godliness, and struggled against the impurities of the dungeon with all ingenuity, thinking the enemy was taking hold on Tirzah’s face, led her to the light, and, looking with the inspiration of a terrible dread, lo! the young girl’s eyebrows were white as snow.
Oh, the anguish of that assurance! The mother sat awhile speechless, motionless, paralyzed of soul, and capable of but one thought- leprosy, leprosy! When she began to think, mother-like, it was not of herself, but her child, and, mother-like, her natural tenderness turned to courage, and she made ready for the last sacrifice of perfect heroism. She buried her knowledge in her heart; hopeless herself, she redoubled her devotion to Tirzah, and with wonderful ingenuity- wonderful chiefly in its very inexhaustibility- continued to keep the daughter ignorant of what they were beset with, and even hopeful that it was nothing. She repeated her little games, and retold her stories, and invented new ones, and listened with ever so much pleasure to the songs she would have from Tirzah, while on her wasting lips the psalms of the singing king of their race served to bring soothing of forgetfulness, and keep alive in them both the recollection of the God who would seem to have abandoned them- the world not more lightly or utterly.