The tribune heard it with a tremor, but kept his place.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Two women dying of hunger and thirst. Yet”- the mother did not falter- “come not near us, nor touch the floor or the wall. Unclean, unclean!”
“Give me thy story, woman- thy name, and when thou wert put here, and by whom, and for what.”
“There was once in this City of Jerusalem a Prince Ben-Hur, the friend of all generous Romans, and who had Caesar for his friend. I am his widow, and this one with me is his child. How may I tell you for what we were sunk here, when I do not know, unless it was because we were rich? Valerius Gratus can tell you who our enemy was, and when our imprisonment began. I cannot. See to what we have been reduced- oh, see, and have pity!”
The air was heavy with the pest and the smoke of the torches, yet the Roman called one of the torch-bearers to his side, and wrote the answer nearly word for word. It was terse and comprehensive, containing at once a history, an accusation, and a prayer. No common person could have made it, and he could not but pity and believe.
“Thou shalt have relief, woman,” he said, closing the tablets. “I will send thee food and drink.”
“And raiment, and purifying water, we pray you, O generous Roman!”
“As thou wilt,” he replied.
“God is good,” said the widow, sobbing. “May his peace abide with you!”
“And, further,” he added, “I cannot see thee again. Make preparation, and to-night I will have thee taken to the gate of the Tower, and set free. Thou knowest the law. Farewell.”
He spoke to the men, and went out the door.
Very shortly some slaves came to the cell with a large gurglet of water, a basin and napkins, a platter with bread and meat, and some garments of women’s wear; and, setting them down within reach of the prisoners, they ran away.
About the middle of the first watch, the two were conducted to the gate, and turned into the street. So the Roman quit himself of them, and in the city of their fathers they were once more free.
Up to the stars, twinkling merrily as of old, they looked; then they asked themselves- “What next? and where to?”
ABOUT the hour Gesius, the keeper, made his appearance before the tribune in the Tower of Antonia, a footman was climbing the eastern face of Mount Olivet. The road was rough and dusty, and vegetation on that side burned brown, for it was the dry season in Judea. Well for the traveller that he had youth and strength, not to speak of the cool flowing garments with which he was clothed.
He proceeded slowly, looking often to his right and left; not with the vexed anxious expression which marks a man going forward uncertain of the way, but rather the air with which one approaches an old acquaintance after a long separation- half of pleasure, half of inquiry; as if he were saying, “I am glad to be with you again; let me see in what you are changed.”