By Hall Caine
PREFACE 1. ISRAEL BEN OLIEL 2. THE BIRTH OF NAOMI 3. THE CHILDHOOD OF NAOMI 4. THE DEATH OF RUTH 5. RUTH'S BURIAL 6. THE SPIRIT-MAID 7. THE ANGEL IN ISRAEL'S HOUSE 8. THE VISION OF THE SCAPEGOAT 9. ISRAEL'S JOURNEY 10. THE WATCHWORD OF THE MAHDI 11. ISRAEL'S HOME-COMING 12. THE BAPTISM OF SOUND 13. NAOMI'S GREAT GIFT 14. ISRAEL AT SHAWAN 15. THE MEETING ON THE SOK 16. NAOMI'S BLINDNESS 17. ISRAEL'S GREAT RESOLVE 18. THE LIGHT-BORN MESSENGER 19. THE RAINBOW SIGN 20. LIFE'S NEW LANGUAGE 21. ISRAEL IN PRISON 22. HOW NAOMI TURNED MUSLIMA 23. ISRAEL'S RETURN FROM PRISON 24. THE ENTRY OF THE SULTAN 25. THE COMING OF THE MAHDI 26. ALI'S RETURN TO TETUAN 27. THE FALL OF BEN ABOO 28. "AT ALLAH-U-KABAR"
Within sight of an English port, and within hail of English ships as they pass on to our empire in the East, there is a land where the ways of life are the same to-day as they were a thousand years ago; a land wherein government is oppression, wherein law is tyranny, wherein justice is bought and sold, wherein it is a terror to be rich and a danger to be poor, wherein man may still be the slave of man, and women is no more than a creature of lust—a reproach to Europe, a disgrace to the century, an outrage on humanity, a blight on religion! That land is Morocco!
This is a story of Morocco in the last years of the Sultan Abd er-Rahman. The ashes of that tyrant are cold, and his grandson sits in his place; but men who earned his displeasure linger yet in his noisome dungeons, and women who won his embraces are starving at this hour in the prison-palaces in which he immured them. His reign is a story of yesterday; he is gone, he is forgotten; no man so meek and none so mean but he might spit upon his tomb. Yet the evil work which he did in his evil time is done to-day, if not by his grandson, then in his grandson's name—the degradation of man's honour, the cruel wrong of woman's, the shame of base usury, and the iniquity of justice that may be bought! Of such corruption this story will tell, for it is a tale of tyranny that is every day repeated, a voice of suffering going up hourly to the powers of the world, calling on them to forget the secret hopes and petty jealousies whereof Morocco is a cause, to think no more of any scramble for territory when the fated day of that doomed land has come, and only to look to it and see that he who fills the throne of Abd er-Rahman shall be the last to sit there.
Yet it is the grandeur of human nature that when it is trodden down it waits for no decree of nations, but finds its own solace amid the baffled struggle against inimical power in the hopes of an exalted faith. That cry of the soul to be lifted out of the bondage of the narrow circle of life, which carries up to God the protest and yearning of suffering man, never finds a more sublime expression than where humanity is oppressed and religion is corrupt. On the one hand, the hard experience of daily existence; on the other hand, the soul crying out that the things of this world are not the true realities. Savage vices make savage virtues. God and man are brought face to face.
In the heart of Morocco there is one man who lives a life that is like a hymn, appealing to God against tyranny and corruption and shame. This great soul is the leader of a vast following which has come to him from every scoured and beaten corner of the land. His voice sounds throughout Barbary, and wheresoever men are broken they go to him, and wheresoever women are fallen and wrecked they seek the mercy and the shelter of his face. He is poor, and has nothing to give them save one thing only, but that is the best thing of all—it is hope. Not hope in life, but hope in death, the sublime hope whose radiance is always around him. Man that veils his face before the mysteries of the hereafter, and science that reckons the laws of nature and ignores the power of God, have no place with the Mahdi. The unseen is his certainty; the miracle is all in all to him; he throngs the air with marvels; God speaks to him in dreams when he sleeps, and warns and directs him by signs when he is awake.
With this man, so singular a mixture of the haughty chief and the joyous child, there is another, a woman, his wife. She is beautiful with a beauty rarely seen in other women, and her senses are subtle beyond the wonders of enchantment. Together these two, with their ragged fellowship of the poor behind them, having no homes and no possessions, pass from place to place, unharmed and unhindered, through that land of intolerance and iniquity, being protected and reverenced by virtue of the superstition which accepts them for Saints. Who are they? What have they been?
ISRAEL BEN OLIEL
Israel was the son of a Jewish banker at Tangier. His mother was the daughter of a banker in London. The father's name was Oliel; the mother's was Sara. Oliel had held business connections with the house of Sara's father, and he came over to England that he might have a personal meeting with his correspondent. The English banker lived over his office, near Holborn Bars, and Oliel met with his family. It consisted of one daughter by a first wife, long dead, and three sons by a second wife, still living. They were not altogether a happy household, and the chief apparent cause of discord was the child of the first wife in the home of the second. Oliel was a man of quick perception, and he saw the difficulty. That was how it came about that he was married to Sara. When he returned to Morocco he was some thousand pounds richer than when he left it, and he had a capable and personable wife into his bargain.
Oliel was a self-centred and silent man, absorbed in getting and spending, always taking care to have much of the one, and no more than he could help of the other. Sara was a nervous and sensitive little woman, hungering for communion and for sympathy. She got little of either from her husband, and grew to be as silent as he. With the people of the country of her adoption, whether Jews or Moors, she made no headway. She never even learnt their language.
Two years passed, and then a child was born to her. This was Israel, and for many a year thereafter he was all the world to the lonely woman. His coming made no apparent difference to his father. He grew to be a tall and comely boy, quick and bright, and inclined to be of a sweet and cheerful disposition. But the school of his upbringing was a hard one. A Jewish child in Morocco might know from his cradle that he was not born a Moor and a Mohammedan.
When the boy was eight years old his father married a second wife, his first wife being still alive. This was lawful, though unusual in Tangier. The new marriage, which was only another business transaction to Oliel, was a shock and a terror to Sara. Nevertheless, she supported its penalties through three weary years, sinking visibly under them day after day. By that time a second family had begun to share her husband's house, the rivalry of the mothers had threatened to extend to the children, the domesticity of home was destroyed and its harmony was no longer possible. Then she left Oliel, and fled back to England, taking Israel with her.
Her father was dead, and the welcome she got of her half-brothers was not warm. They had no sympathy with her rebellion against her husband's second marriage. If she had married into a foreign country, she should abide by the ways of it. Sara was heartbroken. Her health had long been poor, and now it failed her utterly. In less than a month she died. On her deathbed she committed her boy to the care of her brothers, and implored them not to send him back to Morocco.
For years thereafter Israel's life in London was a stern one. If he had no longer to submit to the open contempt of the Moors, the kicks and insults of the streets, he had to learn how bitter is the bread that one is forced to eat at another's table. When he should have been still at school he was set to some menial occupation in the bank at Holborn Bars, and when he ought to have risen at his desk he was required to teach the sons of prosperous men the way to go above him. Life was playing an evil game with him, and, though he won, it must be at a bitter price.
Thus twelve years went by, and Israel, now three-and-twenty, was a tall, silent, very sedate young man, clear-headed on all subjects, and a master of figures. Never once during that time had his father written to him, or otherwise recognised his existence, though knowing of his whereabouts from the first by the zealous importunities of his uncles. Then one day a letter came written in distant tone and formal manner, announcing that the writer had been some time confined to his bed, and did not expect to leave it; that the children of his second wife had died in infancy; that he was alone, and had no one of his own flesh and blood to look to his business, which was therefore in the hands of strangers, who robbed him; and finally, that if Israel felt any duty towards his father, or, failing that, if he had any wish to consult his own interest, he would lose no time in leaving England for Morocco.
Israel read the letter without a throb of filial affection; but, nevertheless, he concluded to obey its summons. A fortnight later he landed at Tangier. He had come too late. His father had died the day before. The weather was stormy, and the surf on the shore was heavy, and thus it chanced that, even while the crazy old packet on which he sailed lay all day beating about the bay, in fear of being dashed on to the ruins of the mole, his father's body was being buried in the little Jewish cemetery outside the eastern walls, and his cousins, and cousins' cousins, to the fifth degree, without loss of time or waste of sentiment, were busily dividing his inheritance among them.
Next day, as his father's heir, he claimed from the Moorish court the restitution of his father's substance. But his cousins made the Kadi, the judge, a present of a hundred dollars, and he was declared to be an impostor, who could not establish his identity. Producing his father's letter which had summoned him from London, he appealed from the Kadi to the Aolama, men wise in the law, who acted as referees in disputed cases; but it was decided that as a Jew he had no right in Mohammedan law to offer evidence in a civil court. He laid his case before the British Consul, but was found to have no claim to English intervention, being a subject of the Sultan both by birth and parentage. Meantime, his dispute with his cousins was set at rest for ever by the Governor of the town, who, concluding that his father had left neither will nor heirs, confiscated everything he had possessed to the public treasury—that is to say, to the Kaid's own uses.
Thus he found himself without standing ground in Morocco, whether as a Jew, a Moor, or an Englishman, a stranger in his father's country, and openly branded as a cheat. That he did not return to England promptly was because he was already a man of indomitable spirit. Besides that, the treatment he was having now was but of a piece with what he had received at all times. Nothing had availed to crush him, even as nothing ever does avail to crush a man of character. But the obstacles and torments which make no impression on the mind of a strong man often make a very sensible impression on his heart; the mind triumphs, it is the heart that suffers; the mind strengthens and expands after every besetting plague of life, but the heart withers and wears away.
So far from flying from Morocco when things conspired together to beat him down, Israel looked about with an equal mind for the means of settling there.
His opportunity came early. The Governor, either by qualm of conscience or further freak of selfishness, got him the place of head of the Oomana, the three Administrators of Customs at Tangier. He held the post six months only, to the complete satisfaction of the Kaid, but amid the muttered discontent of the merchants and tradesmen. Then the Governor of Tetuan, a bigger town lying a long day's journey to the east, hearing of Israel that as Ameen of Tangier he had doubled the custom revenues in half a year, invited him to fill an informal, unofficial, and irregular position as assessor of tributes.
Now, it would be a long task to tell of the work which Israel did in his new calling: how he regulated the market dues, and appointed a Mut'hasseb, a clerk of the market, to collect them—so many moozoonahs for every camel sold, so many for every horse, mule, and ass, so many floos for every fowl, and so many metkals for the purchase and sale of every slave; how he numbered the houses and made lists of the trades, assessing their tribute by the value of their businesses—so much for gun-making, so much for weaving, so much for tanning, and so on through the line of them, great and small, good and bad, even from the trades of the Jewish silversmiths and the Moorish packsaddle-makers down to the callings of the Arab water-carriers and the ninety public women.
All this he did by the strict law and letter of the Koran, which entitled the Sultan to a tithe of all earnings whatsoever; but it would not wrong the truth to say that he did it also by the impulse of a sour and saddened heart. The world had shown no mercy to him, and he need show no mercy to the world. Why talk of pity? It was only a name, an idea a mocking thought. In the actual reckoning of life there was no such name as pity. Thus did Israel justify himself in all his dealings, whatever their severity and the rigour wherewith they wrought.
And the people felt the strong hand that was on them, and they cursed it.
"Ya Allah! Allah!" the Moors would cry. "Who is this Jew—this son of the English—that he should be made our master?"
They muttered at him in the streets, they scowled upon him, and at length they insulted him openly. Since his return from England he had resumed the dress of his race in his country—the long dark gabardine or kaftan, with a scarf for girdle, the black slippers, and the black skull-cap. And, going one day by the Grand Mosque, a group of the beggars; who lay always by the gate, called on him to uncover his feet.
"Jew! Dog!" they cried, "there is no god but God! Curses on your relations! Off with your slippers!"
He paid no heed to their commands, but made straight onward. Then one blear-eyed and scab-faced cripple scrambled up and struck off his cap with a crutch. He picked it up again without a look or a word, and strode away. But next morning, at early prayers, there was a place empty at the door of the mosque. Its accustomed occupant lay in the prison at the Kasbah.
And if the Muslimeen hated Israel for what he was doing for their Governor, the Jews hated him yet more because it was being done for a Moor.
"He has sold himself to our enemy," they said, "against the welfare of his own nation."
At the synagogue they ignored him, and in taking the votes of their people they counted others and passed him by. He showed no malice. Only his strong face twitched at each fresh insult and his head was held higher. Only this, and one other sign of suffering in that secret place of his withering heart, which God's eye alone could see.
Thus far he had done no more to Moor and Jew than exact that tenth part of their substance which the faiths of both required that they should pay. But now his work went further. A little group of old Jews, all held in honour among their people—Abraham Ohana, nicknamed Pigman, son of a former rabbi; Judah ben Lolo, an elder of his synagogue; and Reuben Maliki, keeper of the poor-box—were seized and cast into the Kasbah for gross and base usury.
At this the Jewish quarter was thrown into wild hubbub. The hand that was on their people was a daring and terrible one. None doubted whose hand it was—it was the hand of young Israel the Jew.
When the three old usurers had bought themselves out of the Kasbah, they put their heads together and said, "Let us drive this fellow out of the Mellah, and so shall he be driven out of the town." Then the owner of the house which Israel rented for his lodging evicted him by a poor excuse, and all other Jewish owners refused him as tenant. But the conspiracy failed. By command of the Governor, or by his influence, Israel was lodged by the Nadir, the administrator of mosque property, in one of the houses belonging to the mosque on the Moorish side of the Mellah walls.
Seeing this, the usurers laid their heads together again and said, "Let us see that no man of our nation serve him, and so shall his life be a burden." Then the two Jews who had been his servants deserted him, and when he asked for Moors he was told that the faithful might not obey the unbeliever; and when he would have sent for negroes out of the Soudan he was warned that a Jew might not hold a slave. But the conspiracy failed again. Two black female slaves from Soos, named Fatimah and Habeebah, were bought in the name of the Governor and assigned to Israel's service.
And when it was seen at length that nothing availed to disturb Israel's material welfare, the three base usurers laid their heads together yet again, that they might prey upon his superstitious fears, and they said, "He is our enemy, but he is a Jew: let the woman who is named the prophetess put her curse upon him." Then she who was so called, one Rebecca Bensabbot, deaf as a stone, weak in her intellect, seventy years of age, and living fifty years on the poor-box which Reuben Maliki kept, crossed Israel in the streets, and cursed him as a son of Beelzebub predicting that, even as he had made the walls of the Kasbah to echo with the groans of God's elect, so should his own spirit be broken within them and his forehead humbled to the earth. He stood while he heard her out, and his strong lip trembled at he words; but he only smiled coldly, and passed on in silence.
"The clouds are not hurt," he thought, "by the bark of dogs."
Thus did his brethren of Judah revile him, and thus did they torture him; yet there was one among them who did neither. This was the daughter of their Grand Rabbi, David ben Ohana. Her name was Ruth. She was young, and God had given her grace and she was beautiful, and many young Jewish men, of Tetuan had vied with each other in vain for he favour. Of Israel's duty she knew little, save what report had said of it, that it was evil; and of the act which had made him an outcast among his own people, and an Ishmael among the sons of Ishmael she could form no judgment. But what a woman's eyes might see in him, without help of other knowledge, that she saw.
She had marked him in the synagogue, that his face was noble and his manners gracious; that he was young, but only as one who had been cheated of his youth and had missed his early manhood, the when he was ignored he ignored his insult, and when he was reviled he answered not again; in a word, the he was silent and strong and alone, and, above all that he was sad.
These were credentials enough to the true girl's favour, and Israel soon learnt that the house of the Rabbi was open to him. There the lonely man first found himself. The cold eyes of his little world had seen him as his father's son, but the light and warmth of the eyes of Ruth saw him as the son of his mother also. The Rabbi himself was old, very old—ninety years of age—and length of days had taught him charity. And so it was that when, in due time, Israel came with many excuses and asked for Ruth in marriage, the Rabbi gave her to him.
The betrothal followed, but none save the notary and his witnesses stood beside Israel when he crossed hands over the handkerchief; and, when the marriage came in its course, few stood beside the Chief Rabbi. Nevertheless, all the Jews of the quarter and all the Moors of Tetuan were alive to what was happening, and on the night of the marriage a great company of both peoples, though chiefly of the rabble among them, gathered in front of the Rabbi's house that they might hiss and jeer.
The Chacham heard them from where he sat under the stars in his patio, and when at last the voice of Rebecca the prophetess came to him above the tumult, crying, "Woe to her that has married the enemy of her nation, and woe to him that gave her against the hope of his people! They shall taste death. He shall see them fall from his side and die," then the old man listened and trembled visibly. In confusion and fierce anger he rose up and stumbled through the crooked passage to the door, and flinging it wide, he stood in the doorway facing them that stood without.
"Peace! Peace!" he cried, "and shame! shame! Remember the doom of him that shall curse the high priest of the Lord."
This he spoke in a voice that shook with wrath. Then suddenly, his voice failing him, he said in a broken whisper, "My good people, what is this? Your servant is grown old in your service. Sixty and odd years he has shared your sorrows and your burdens. What has he done this day that your women should lift up their voices against him?"
But, in awe of his white head in the moonlight, the rabble that stood in the darkness were silent and made no answer. Then he staggered back, and Israel helped him into his house, and Ruth did what she could to compose him. But he was woefully shaken, and that night he died.
When the Rabbi's death became known in the morning, the Jews whispered, "It is the first-fruits!" and the Moors touched their foreheads and murmured "It is written!"
THE BIRTH OF NAOMI
Israel paid no heed to Jew or Moor, but in due time he set about the building of a house for himself and for Ruth, that they might live in comfort many years together. In the south-east corner of the Mellah he placed it, and he built it partly in the Moorish and partly in the English fashion, with an open court and corridors, marble pillars, and a marble staircase, walls of small tiles, and ceilings of stalactites, but also with windows and with doors. And when his house was raised he put no haities into it, and spread no mattresses on the floors, but sent for tables and chairs and couches out of England; and everything he did in this wise cut him off the more from the people about him, both Moors and Jews.
And being settled at last, and his own master in his own dwelling, out of the power of his enemies to push him back into the streets, suddenly it occurred to him for the first time that whereas the house he had built was a refuge for himself, it was doomed to be little better than a prison for his wife. In marrying Ruth he had enlarged the circle of his intimates by one faithful and loving soul, but in marrying him she had reduced even her friends to that number. Her father was dead; if she was the daughter of a Chief Rabbi she was also the wife of an outcast, the companion of a pariah, and save for him, she must be for ever alone. Even their bondwomen still spoke a foreign dialect, and commerce with them was mainly by signs.
Thinking of all this with some remorse, one idea fixed itself on Israel's mind, one hope on his heart—that Ruth might soon bear a child. Then would her solitude be broken by the dearest company that a woman might know on earth. And, if he had wronged her, his child would make amends.
Israel thought of this again and again. The delicious hope pursued him. It was his secret, and he never gave it speech. But time passed, and no child was born. And Ruth herself saw that she was barren, and she began to cast down her head before her husband. Israel's hope was of longer life, but the truth dawned upon him at last. Then, when he perceived that his wife was ashamed, a great tenderness came over him. He had been thinking of her; that a child would bring her solace, and meanwhile she had thought only of him, that a child would be his pride. After that he never went abroad but he came home with stories of women wailing at the cemetery over the tombs of their babes, of men broken in heart for loss of their sons, and of how they were best treated of God who were given no children.
This served his big soul for a time to cheat it of its disappointment, half deceiving Ruth, and deceiving himself entirely. But one day the woman Rebecca met him again at the street-corner by his own house, and she lifted her gaunt finger into his face, and cried, "Israel ben Oliel, the judgment of the Lord is upon you, and will not suffer you to raise up children to be a reproach and a curse among your people!"
"Out upon you, woman!" cried Israel, and almost in the first delirium of his pain he had lifted his hand to strike her. Her other predictions had passed him by, but this one had smitten him. He went home and shut himself in his room, and throughout that day he let no one come near to him.
Israel knew his own heart at last. At his wife's barrenness he was now angry with the anger of a proud man whose pride had been abased. What was the worth of it, after all, that he had conquered the fate that had first beaten him down? What did it come to that the world was at his feet? Heaven was above him, and the poorest man in the Mellah who was the father of a child might look down on him with contempt.
That night sleep forsook his eyelids, and his mouth was parched and his spirit bitter. And sometimes he reproached himself with a thousand offences, and sometimes he searched the Scriptures, that he might persuade himself that he had walked blameless before the Lord in the ordinances and commandments of God.
Meantime, Ruth, in her solitude, remembered that it was now three years since she had been married to Israel, and that by the laws, both of their race and their country, a woman who had been long barren might straightway be divorced by her husband.
Next morning a message of business came from the Khaleefa, but Israel would not answer it. Then came an order to him from the Governor, but still he paid no heed. At length he heard a feeble knock at the door of his room. It was Ruth, his wife, and he opened to her and she entered.
"Send me away from you!" she cried. "Send me away!"
"Not for the place of the Kaid," he answered stoutly; "no, nor the throne of the Sultan!"
At that she fell on his neck and kissed him, and they mingled their tears together. But he comforted her at length, and said, "Look up, my dearest! look up! I am a proud man among men, but it is even as the Lord may deal with me. And which of us shall murmur against God?"
At that word Ruth lifted her head from his bosom and her eyes were full of a sudden thought.
"Then let us ask of the Lord," she whispered hotly, "and surely He will hear our prayer."
"It is the voice of the Lord Himself!" cried Israel; "and this day it shall be done!"
At the time of evening prayers Israel and Ruth went up hand in hand together to the synagogue, in a narrow lane off the Sok el Foki. And Ruth knelt in her place in the gallery close under the iron grating and the candles that hung above it, and she prayed: "O Lord, have pity on this Thy servant, and take away her reproach among women. Give her grace in Thine eyes, O Lord, that her husband be not ashamed. Grant her a child of Thy mercy, that his eye may smile upon her. Yet not as she willeth, but as Thou willest, O Lord, and Thy servant will be satisfied."
But Israel stood long on the floor with his hand on his heart and his eyes to the ground, and he called on God as a debtor that will not be appeased, saying: "How long wilt Thou forget me, O Lord? My enemies triumph over me and foretell Thy doom upon me. They sit in the lurking-places of the streets to deride me. Confound my enemies, O Lord, and rebuke their counsels. Remember Ruth, I beseech Thee, that she is patient and her heart is humbled. Give her children of Thy servant, and her first-born shall be sanctified unto Thee. Give her one child, and it shall be Thine—if it is a son, to be a Rabbi in Thy synagogues. Hear me, O Lord, and give heed to my cry, for behold, I swear it before Thee. One child, but one, only one, son or daughter, and all my desire is before Thee. How long wilt Thou forget me, O Lord?"
The message of the Khaleefa which Israel had not answered in his trouble was a request from the Shereef of Wazzan that he should come without delay to that town to count his rent-charges and assess his dues. This request the Governor had transformed into a command, for the Shereef was a prince of Islam in his own country, and in many provinces the believers paid him tribute. So in three days' time Israel was ready to set out on his journey, with men and mules at his door, and camels packed with tents. He was likely to be some months absent from Tetuan, and it was impossible that Ruth should go with him. They had never been separated before, and Ruth's concern was that they should be so long parted, but Israel's was a deeper matter.
"Ruth," he said when his time came, "I am going away from you, but my enemies remain. They see evil in all my doings, and in this act also they will find offence. Promise me that if they make a mock at you for your husband's sake you will not see them; if they taunt you that you will not hear them; and if they ask anything concerning me that you will answer them not at all."
And Ruth promised him that if his enemies made a mock at her she should be as one that was blind, if they taunted her as one that was deaf, and if they questioned her concerning her husband as one that was dumb. Then they parted with many tears and embraces.
Israel was half a year absent in the town and province of Wazzan, and, having finished the work which he came to do, he was sent back to Tetuan loaded with presents from the Shereef, and surrounded by soldiers and attendants, who did not leave him until they had brought him to the door of his own house.
And there, in her chamber, sat Ruth awaiting him, her eyes dim with tears of joy, her throat throbbing like the throat of a bird, and great news on her tongue.
"Listen," she whispered; "I have something to tell you—"
"Ah, I know it," he cried; "I know it already. I see it in your eyes."
"Only listen," she whispered again, while she toyed with the neck of his kaftan, and coloured deeply, not daring to look into his face.
Their prayer in the synagogue had been heard, and the child they had asked for was to come.
Israel was like a man beside himself with joy. He burst in upon the message of his wife, and caught her to his breast again and again, and kissed her. Long they stood together so, while he told her of the chances which had befallen him during his absence from her, and she told him of her solitude of six long months, unbroken save for the poor company of Fatimah and Habeebah, wherein she had been blind and deaf and dumb to all the world.
During the months thereafter until Ruth's time was full Israel sat with her constantly. He could scarce suffer himself to leave her company. He covered her chamber with fruits and flowers. There was no desire of her heart but he fulfilled it. And they talked together lovingly of how they would name the child when the time came to name it. Israel concluded that if it was a son it should be called David, and Ruth decided that if it was a daughter it should be called Naomi. And Ruth delighted to tell of how when it was weaned she should take it up to the synagogue and say, "O Lord: I am the woman that knelt before Thee praying. For this child I prayed, and Thou hast heard my prayer." And Israel told of how his son should grow up to be a Rabbi to minister before God, and how in those days it should come to pass that the children of his father's enemies should crouch to him for a piece of silver and a morsel of bread. Thus they built themselves castles in the air for the future of the child that was to come.
Ruth's time came at last, and it was also the time of the Feast of the Passover, being in the month of Nisan. This was a cause of joy to Israel, for he was eager to triumph over his enemies face to face, and he could not wait eight other days for the Feast of the circumcision. So he set a supper fit for a king: the fore-leg of a sheep and the fore-leg of an ox, the egg roasted in ashes, the balls of Charoseth, the three Mitzvoth, and the wine, And by the time the supper was ready the midwife had been summoned, and it was the day of the night of the Seder.
Then Israel sent messengers round the Mellah to summon his guests. Only his enemies he invited, his bitterest foes, his unceasing revilers, and among them were the three base usurers, Abraham Pigman, Judah ben Lolo, and Reuben Maliki. "They cursed me," he thought, "and I shall look on their confusion." His heart thirsted to summon Rebecca Bensabbot also, but well he knew that her dainty masters would not sit at meat with her.
And when the enemies were bidden, all of them excused themselves and refused, saying it was the Feast of the Passover, when no man should sit save in his own house and at his own table. But Israel was not to be gainsaid. He went out to them himself, and said, "Come, let bygones be bygones. It is the feast of our nation. Let us eat and drink together." So, partly by his importunity, but mainly in their bewilderment, yet against all rule and custom, they suffered themselves to go with him.
And when they were come into his house and were seated about his table in the patio, and he had washed his hands and taken the wine and blessed it, and passed it to all, and they had drunk together, he could not keep back his tongue from taunting them. Then when he had washed again and dipped the celery in the vinegar, and they had drunk of the wine once more, he taunted them afresh and laughed. But nothing yet had they understood of his meaning, and they looked into each other's faces and asked, "What is it?"
"Wait! Only wait!" Israel answered. "You shall see!"
At that moment Ruth sent for him to her chamber, and he went in to her.
"I am a sorrowful woman," she said. "Some evil is about to befall—I know it, I feel it."
But he only rallied her and laughed again, and prophesied joy on the morrow. Then, returning to the patio, where the passover cakes had been broken, he called for the supper, and bade his guests to eat and drink as much as their hearts desired.
They could do neither now, for the fear that possessed them at sight of Israel's frenzy. The three old usurers, Abraham, Judah, and Reuben, rose to go, but Israel cried, "Stay! Stay, and see what is come!" and under the very force of his will they yielded and sat down again.
Still Israel drank and laughed and derided them. In the wild torrent of his madness he called them by names they knew and by names they did not know—Harpagon, Shylock, Bildad, Elihu—and at every new name he laughed again. And while he carried himself so in the outer court the slave woman Fatimah came from the inner room with word that the child was born.
At that Israel was like a man distraught. He leapt up from the table and faced full upon his guests, and cried, "Now you know what it is; and now you know why you are bidden to this supper! You are here to rejoice with me over my enemies! Drink! drink! Confusion to all of them!" And he lifted a winecup and drank himself.
They were abashed before him, and tried to edge out of the patio into the street; but he put his back to the passage, and faced them again.
"You will not drink?" he said. "Then listen to me." He dashed the winecup out of his hand, and it broke into fragments on the floor. His laughter was gone, his face was aflame, and his voice rose to a shrill cry. "You foretold the doom of God upon me, you brought me low, you made me ashamed: but behold how the Lord has lifted me up! You set your women to prophesy that God would not suffer me to raise up children to be a reproach and a curse among my people; but God has this day given me a son like the best of you. More than that—more than that—my son shall yet see—"
The slave woman was touching his arm. "It is a girl," she said; "a girl!"
For a moment Israel stammered and paused. Then he cried, "No matter! She shall see your own children fatherless, and with none to show them mercy! She shall see the iniquity of their fathers remembered against them! She shall see them beg their bread, and seek it in desolate places! And now you can go! Go! go!"
He had stepped aside as he spoke, and with a sweep of his arm he was driving them all out like sheep before him, dumbfounded and with their eyes in the dust, when suddenly there was a low cry from the inner room.
It was Ruth calling for her husband. Israel wheeled about and went in to her hurriedly, and his enemies, by one impulse of evil instinct, followed him and listened from the threshold.
Ruth's face was a face of fear, and her lips moved, but no voice came from them.
And Israel said, "How is it with you, my dearest joy of my joy and pride of my pride?"
Then Ruth lifted the babe from her bosom and said "The Lord has counted my prayer to me as sin—look, see; the child is both dumb and blind!"
At that word Israel's heart died within him, but he muttered out of his dry throat, "No, no, never believe it!"
"True, true, it is true," she moaned; "the child has not uttered a cry, and its eyelids have not blinked at the light."
"Never believe it, I say!" Israel growled, and he lifted the babe in his arms to try it.
But when he held it to the fading light of the window which opened upon the street where the woman called the prophetess had cursed him, the eyes of the child did not close, neither did their pupils diminish. Then his limbs began to tremble, so that the midwife took the babe out of his arms and laid it again on its mother's bosom.
And Ruth wept over it, saying, "Even if it were a son never could it serve in the synagogue! Never! Never!"
At that Israel began to curse and to swear. His enemies had now pushed themselves into the chamber, and they cried, "Peace! Peace!" And old Judah ben Lolo, the elder of the synagogue, grunted, and said, "Is it not written that no one afflicted of God shall minister in His temples?"
Israel stared around in silence into the faces about him, first into the face of his wife, and then into the faces of his enemies whom he had bidden. Then he fell to laughing hideously and crying, "What matter? Every monkey is a gazelle to its mother!" But after that he staggered, his knees gave way, he pitched half forward and half aside, like a falling horse, and with a deep groan he fell with his face to the floor.
The midwife and the slave lifted him up and moistened his lips with water; but his enemies turned and left him, muttering among themselves, "The Lord killeth and maketh alive, He bringeth low and lifteth up, and into the pit that the evil man diggeth or another He causeth his foot to slip."
THE CHILDHOOD OF NAOMI
Throughout Tetuan and the country round about Israel was now an object of contempt. God had declared against him, God had brought him low, God Himself had filled him with confusion. Then why should man show him mercy?
But if he was despised he was still powerful. None dare openly insult him. And, between their fear and their scorn of him, the shifts of the rabble to give vent to their contempt were often ludicrous enough. Thus, they would call their dogs and their asses by his name, and the dogs would be the scabbiest in the streets, and the asses the laziest in the market.
He would be caught in the crush of the traffic at the town gate or at the gate of the Mellah, and while he stood aside to allow a line of pack-mules to pass he would hear a voice from behind him crying huskily, "Accursed old Israel! Get on home to your mother!" Then, turning quickly round, he would find that close at his heels a negro of most innocent countenance was cudgelling his donkey by that title.
He would go past the Saints' Houses in the public ways, and at the sound of his footsteps the bleached and eyeless lepers who sat under the white walls crying "Allah! Allah! Allah!" would suddenly change their cry to "Arrah! Arrah! Arrah!" "Go on! Go on! Go on!"
He would walk across the Sok on Fridays, and hear shrieks and peals of laughter, and see grinning faces with gleaming white teeth turned in his direction, and he would know that the story-tellers were mimicking his voice and the jugglers imitating his gestures.
His prosperity counted for nothing against the open brand of God's displeasure. The veriest muck-worm in the market-place spat out at sight of him. Moor and Jew, Arab and Berber—they all despised him!
Nevertheless, the disaster which had befallen his house had not crushed him. It had brought out every fibre of his being, every muscle of his soul. He had quarrelled with God by reason of it, and his quarrel with God had made his quarrel with his fellow-man the fiercer.
There was just one man in the town who found no offence in either form of warfare. The more wicked the one and the more outrageous the other, the better for his person.
It was the Governor of Tetuan. His name was El Arby, but he was known as Ben Aboo, the son of his father. That father had been none other than the late Sultan. Therefore Ben Aboo was a brother of Abd er-Rahman, though by another mother, a negro slave. To be a Sultan's brother in Morocco is not to be a Sultan's favourite, but a possible aspirant to his throne. Nevertheless Ben Aboo had been made a Kaid, a chief, in the Sultan's army, and eventually a commander-in-chief of his cavalry. In that capacity he had led a raid for arrears of tribute on the Beni Hasan, the Beni Idar, and the Wad Ras These rebellious tribes inhabit the country near to Tetuan, and hence Ben Aboo's attention had been first directed to that town. When he had returned from his expedition he offered the Sultan fifteen thousand dollars for the place of its Basha or Governor, and promised him thirty thousand dollars a year as tribute. The Sultan took his money, and accepted his promise. There was a Basha at Tetuan already, but that was a trifling difficulty. The good man was summoned to the Sultan's presence, accused of appropriating the Shereefian tributes, stripped of all he had, and cast into prison.
That was how Ben Aboo had become Governor of Tetuan, and the story of how Israel had become his informal Administrator of Affairs is no less curious. At first Ben Aboo seemed likely to lose by his dubious transaction. His new function was partly military and partly civil. He was a valiant soldier—the black blood of his slave-mother had counted for so much; but he was a bad administrator—he could neither read nor write nor reckon figures. In this dilemma his natural colleague would have been his Khaleefa, his deputy, Ali bin Jillool, but because this man had been the deputy of his predecessor also, he could not trust him. He had two other immediate subordinates, his Commander of Artillery and his Commander of Infantry, but neither of them could spell the letters of his name. Then there was his Taleb the Adel, his scribe the notary, Hosain ben Hashem, styled Haj, because he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, but he was also the Imam, or head of the Mosque, and the wily Ben Aboo foresaw the danger of some day coming into collision with the religious sentiment of his people. Finally, there was the Kadi, Mohammed ben Arby, but the judge was an official outside his jurisdiction, and he wanted a man who should be under his hand. That was the combination of circumstances whereby Israel came to Tetuan.
Israel's first years in his strange office had satisfied his master entirely. He had carried the Basha's seal and acted for him in all affairs of money. The revenues had risen to fifty thousand dollars, so that the Basha had twenty thousand to the good. Then Ben Aboo's ambition began to override itself. He started an oil-mill, and wanted Israel to select a hundred houses owned by rich men, that he might compel each house to take ten kollahs of oil—an extravagant quantity, at seven dollars for each kollah—an exorbitant price. Israel had refused. "It is not just," he had said.
Other expedients for enlarging his revenue Ben Aboo had suggested, but Israel had steadfastly resisted all of them. Sometimes the Governor had pretended that he had received an order from the Sultan to impose a gross and wicked tax, but Israel's answer had been the same. "There is no evil in the world but injustice," he had said. "Do justice, and you do all that God can ask or man expect."
For such opposition to the will of the Basha any other person would have been cast into a damp dungeon at night, and chained in the hot sun by day. Israel was still necessary. So Ben Aboo merely longed for the dawn of that day whereon he should need him no more.
But since the disaster which had befallen Israel's house everything had undergone a change. It was now Israel himself who suggested dubious means of revenue. There was no device of a crafty brain for turning the very air itself into money—ransoms, promissory notes, and false judgments—but Israel thought of it. Thus he persuaded the Governor to send his small currency to the Jewish shops to be changed into silver dollars at the rate of nine ducats to the dollar, when a dollar was worth ten in currency. And after certain of the shopkeepers, having changed fifty thousand dollars at that rate, fled to the Sultan to complain, Israel advised that their debtors should be called together, their debts purchased, and bonds drawn up and certified for ten times the amounts of them. Thus a few were banished from their homes in fear of imprisonment, many were sorely harassed, and some were entirely ruined.
It was a strange spectacle. He whom the rabble gibed at in the public streets held the fate of every man of them in his hand. Their dogs and their asses might bear his name, but their own lives and liberty must answer to it.
Israel looked on at all with an equal mind, neither flinching at his indignities nor glorying in his power. He beheld the wreck of families without remorse, and heard the wail of women and the cry of children without a qualm. Neither did he delight in the sufferings of them that had derided him. His evil impulse was a higher matter—his faith in justice had been broken up. He had been wrong. There was no such thing as justice in the world, and there could, therefore, be no such thing as injustice. There was no thing but the blind swirl of chance, and the wild scramble for life. The man had quarrelled with God.
But Israel's heart was not yet dead. There was one place, where he who bore himself with such austerity towards the world was a man of great tenderness. That place was his own home. What he saw there was enough to stir the fountains of his being—nay, to exhaust them, and to send him abroad as a river-bed that is dry.
In that first hour of his abasement, after he had been confounded before the enemies whom he had expected to confound, Israel had thought of himself, but Ruth's unselfish heart had even then thought only of the babe.
The child was born blind and dumb and deaf. At the feast of life there was no place left for it. So Ruth turned her face from it to the wall, and called on God to take it.
"Take it!" she cried—"take it! Make haste, O God, make haste and take it!"
But the child did not die. It lived and grew strong. Ruth herself suckled it, and as she nourished it in her bosom her heart yearned over it, and she forgot the prayer she had prayed concerning it. So, little by little, her spirit returned to her, and day by day her soul deceived her, and hour by hour an angel out of heaven seemed to come to her side and whisper "Take heart of hope, O Ruth! God does not afflict willingly. Perhaps the child is not blind, perhaps it is not deaf, perhaps it is not dumb. Who shall ye say? Wait and see!"
And, during the first few months of its life, Ruth could see no difference in her child from the children of other women. Sometimes she would kneel by its cradle and gaze into the flower-cup of its eye, an the eye was blue and beautiful, and there was nothing to say that the little cup was broken, and the little chamber dark. And sometimes she would look at the pretty shell of its ear, and the ear was round and full as a shell on the shore, and nothing told her that the voice of the sea was not heard in it, and that all within was silence.
So Ruth cherished her hope in secret, and whispered her heart and said, "It is well, all is well with the child. She will look upon my face and see it, and listen to my voice and hear it, and her own little tongue will yet speak to me, and make me very glad." And then an ineffable serenity would spread over her face and transfigure it.
But when the time was come that a child's eyes, having grown familiar with the light, should look on its little hands, and stare at its little fingers, and clutch at its cradle, and gaze about in a peaceful perplexity at everything, still the eyes of Ruth's child did not open in seeing, but lay idle and empty. And when the time was ripe that a child's ears should hear from hour to hour the sweet babble of a mother's love, and its tongue begin to give back the words in lisping sounds, the ear of Ruth's child heard nothing, and its tongue was mute.
Then Ruth's spirit sank, but still the angel out of heaven seemed to come to her, and find her a thousand excuses, and say, "Wait, Ruth; only wait, only a little longer."
So Ruth held back her tears, and bent above her babe again, and watched for its smile that should answer to her smile, and listened for the prattle of its little lips. But never a sound as of speech seemed to break the silence between the words that trembled from her own tongue, and never once across her baby's face passed the light of her tearful smile. It was a pitiful thing to see her wasted pains, and most pitiful of all for the pains she was at to conceal them. Thus, every day at midday she would carry her little one into the patio, and watch if its eyes should blink in the sunshine; but if Israel chanced to come upon her then, she would drop her head and say, "How sweet the air is to-day, and how pleasant to sit in the sun!"
"So it is," he would answer, "so it is."
Thus, too, when a bird was singing from the fig-tree that grew in the court, she would catch up her child and carry it close, and watch if its ears should hear; but if Israel saw her, she would laugh—a little shrill laugh like a cry—and cover her face in confusion.
"How merry you are, sweetheart," he would say, and then pass into the house.
For a time Israel tried to humour her, seeming not to see what he saw, and pretending not to hear what he heard. But every day his heart bled at sight of her, and one day he could bear up no longer, for his very soul had sickened, and he cried, "Have done, Ruth!—for mercy's sake, have done! The child is a soul in chains, and a spirit in prison. Her eyes are darkness, like the tomb's, and her ears are silence, like the grave's. Never will she smile to her mother's smile, or answer to her father's speech. The first sound she will hear will be the last trump, and the first face she will see will be the face of God."
At that, Ruth flung herself down and burst into a flood of tears. The hope that she had cherished was dead. Israel could comfort her no longer. The fountain of his own heart was dry. He drew a long breath, and went away to his bad work at the Kasbah.
The child lived and thrived. They had called her Naomi, as they had agreed to do before she was born, though no name she knew of herself, and a mockery it seemed to name her. At four years of age she was a creature of the most delicate beauty. Notwithstanding her Jewish parentage, she was fair as the day and fresh as the dawn. And if her eyes were darkness, there was light within her soul; and if her ears were silence, there was music within her heart. She was brighter than the sun which she could not see, and sweeter than the songs which she could not hear. She was joyous as a bird in its narrow cage, and never did she fret at the bars which bound her. And, like the bird that sings at midnight, her cheery soul sang in its darkness.
Only one sound seemed ever to come from her little lips, and it was the sound of laughter. With this she lay down to sleep at night, and rose again in the morning. She laughed as she combed her hair, and laughed again as she came dancing out of her chamber at dawn.
She had only one sentinel on the outpost of her spirit, and that was the sense of touch and feeling. With this she seemed to know the day from the night, and when the sun was shining and when the sky was dark. She knew her mother, too, by the touch of her fingers, and her father by the brushing of his beard. She knew the flowers that grew in the fields outside the gate of the town, and she would gather them in her lap, as other children did, and bring them home with her in her hands. She seemed almost to know their colours also, for the flowers which she would twine in her hair were red, and the white were those which she would lay on her bosom. And truly a flower she was of herself, whereto the wind alone could whisper, and only the sun could speak aloud.
Sweet and touching were the efforts she sometimes made to cling to them that were about her. Thus her heart was the heart of a child, and she knew no delight like to that of playing with other children. But her father's house was under a ban; no child of any neighbour in Tetuan was allowed to cross its threshold, and, save for the children whom she met in the fields when she walked there by her mother's hand, no child did she ever meet.
Ruth saw this, and then, for the first time, she became conscious of the isolation in which she had lived since her marriage with Israel. She herself had her husband for companion and comrade, but her little Naomi was doubly and trebly alone—first, alone as a child that is the only child of her parents; again, alone as a child whose parents are cut off from the parents of other children; and yet again, once more, alone as a child that is blind and dumb.
But Israel saw it also, and one day he brought home with him from the Kasbah a little black boy with a sweet round face and big innocent white eyes which might have been the eyes of an angel. The boy's name was Ali, and he was four years old. His father had killed his mother for infidelity and neglect of their child, and, having no one to buy him out of prison, he had that day been executed. Then little Ali had been left alone in the world, and so Israel had taken him.
Ruth welcomed the boy, and adopted him. He had been born a Mohammedan, but secretly she brought him up as a Jew. And for some years thereafter no difference did she make between him and her own child that other eyes could see. They ate together, they walked abroad together, they played together, they slept together, and the little black head of the boy lay with the fair head of the girl on the same white pillow.
Strange and pathetic were the relations between these little exiles of humanity I One knew not whether to laugh or cry at them. First, on Ali's part, a blank wonderment that when he cried to Naomi, "Come!" she did not hear, when he asked "Why?" she did not answer; and when he said "Look!" she did not see, though her blue eyes seemed to gaze full into his face. Then, a sort of amused bewilderment that her little nervous fingers were always touching his arms and his hands, and his neck and his throat. But long before he had come to know that Naomi was not as he was, that Nature had not given her eyes to see as he saw, and ears to hear as he heard, and a tongue to speak as he spoke, Nature herself had overstepped the barriers that divided her from him. He found that Naomi had come to understand him, whatever in his little way he did, and almost whatever in his little way he said. So he played with her as he would have played with any other playmate, laughing with her, calling to her, and going through his foolish little boyish antics before her. Nevertheless, by some mysterious knowledge of Nature's own teaching, he seemed to realise that it was his duty to take care of her. And when the spirit and the mischief in his little manly heart would prompt him to steal out of the house, and adventure into the streets with Naomi by his side, he would be found in the thick of the throng perhaps at the heels of the mules and asses, with Naomi's hand locked in his hand, trying to push the great creatures of the crowd from before her, and crying in his brave little treble, "Arrah!" "Ar-rah!" "Ar-r-rah!"
As for Naomi, the coming of little black Ali was a wild delight to her. Whatever Ali did, that would she do also. If he ran she would run; if he sat she would sit; and meanwhile she would laugh with a heart of glee, though she heard not what he said, and saw not what he did, and knew not what he meant. At the time of the harvest, when Ruth took them out into the fields, she would ride on Ali's back, and snatch at the ears of barley and leap in her seat and laugh, yet nothing would she see of the yellow corn, and nothing would she hear of the song of the reapers, and nothing would she know of the cries of Ali, who shouted to her while he ran, forgetting in his playing that she heard him not. And at night, when Ruth put them to bed in their little chamber, and Ali knelt with his face towards Jerusalem, Naomi would kneel beside him with a reverent air, and all her laughter would be gone. Then, as he prayed his prayer, her little lips would move as if she were praying too, and her little hands would be clasped together, and her little eyes would be upraised.
"God bless father, and mother, and Naomi, and everybody," the black boy would say.
And the little maid would touch his hands and hi throat, and pass her fingers over his face from his eyelids to his lips, and then do as he did, and in her silence seem to echo him.
Pretty and piteous sights! Who could look on them without tears? One thing at least was clear if the soul of this child was in prison, nevertheless it was alive; and if it was in chains, nevertheless it could not die, but was immortal and unmaimed and waited only for the hour when it should be linked to other souls, soul to soul in the chains of speech. But the years went on, and Naomi grew in beauty and increased in sweetness, but no angel came down to open the darkened windows of her eyes, and draw aside the heavy curtains of her ears.
THE DEATH OF RUTH
For all her joy and all her prettiness, Naomi was a burden which only love could bear. To think of the girl by day, and to dream of her by night, never to sit by her without pity of her helplessness, and never to leave her without dread of the mischances that might so easily befall, to see for her, to hear for her, to speak for her, truly the tyranny of the burden was terrible.
Ruth sank under it. Through seven years she was eyes of the child's eyes, and ears of her ears, and tongue of her tongue. After that her own sight became dim, and her hearing faint. It was almost as if she had spent them on Naomi in the yearning of dove and pity. Soon afterwards her bodily strength failed her also, and then she knew that her time had come, and that she was to lay down her burden for ever. But her burden had become dear, and she clung to it. She could not look upon the child and think it, that she, who had spent her strength for her from the first, must leave her now to other love and tending. So she betook herself to an upper room, and gave strict orders to Fatimah and Habeebah that Naomi was to be kept from her altogether, that sight of the child's helpless happy face might tempt her soul no more.
And there in her death-chamber Israel sat with her constantly, settling his countenance steadfastly, and coming and going softly. He was more constant than a slave, and more tender than a woman. His love was great, but also he was eating out his big heart with remorse. The root of his trouble was the child. He never talked of her, and neither did Ruth dwell upon her name. Yet they thought of little else while they sat together.
And even if they had been minded to talk of the child, what had they to say of her? They had no memories to recall, no sweet childish sayings, no simple broken speech, no pretty lisp—they had nothing to bring back out of any harvest of the past of all the dear delicious wealth that lies stored in the treasure-houses of the hearts of happy parents. That way everything was a waste. Always, as Israel entered her room, Ruth would say, "How is the child?" And always Israel would answer, "She is well." But, if at that moment Naomi's laughter came up to them from the patio, where she played with Ali, they would cover their faces and be silent.
It was a melancholy parting. No one came near them—neither Moor nor Jew, neither Rabbi nor elder. The idle women of the Mellah would sometimes stand outside in the street and look up at their house, knowing that the black camel of death was kneeling at their gate. Other company they had none. In such solitude they passed four weeks, and when the time of the end seemed near, Israel himself read aloud the prayer for the dying, the prayer Shema' Yisrael, and Ruth repeated the words of it after him.
Meantime, while Ruth lay in the upper chamber little Naomi sported and played in the patio with Ali, but she missed her mother constantly. This she made plain by many silent acts of helpless love that knew no way to speak aloud. Thus she would lay flowers on the seats where her mother had used to sit, and, if at night she found them untouched where she had left them, her little face would fall, and her laughter die off her lips; but if they had withered and some one had cast them into the oven, she would laugh again and fetch other flowers from the fields, until the house would be full of the odour of the meadow and the scent of the hill.
And well they knew, who looked upon her then, whom she missed, and what the question was that halted on her tongue; yet how could they answer her? There was no way to do that until she herself knew how to ask.
But this she did on a day near to the end. It was evening, and she was being put to bed by Habeebah, and had just risen from her innocent pantomime of prayer beside Ali, when Israel, coming from Ruth's chamber, entered the children's room. Then, touching with her hand the seat whereon Ruth had used to sit, Naomi laid down her head on the pillow, and then rose and lay down again, and rose yet again and rose yet again lay down, and then came to where Israel was and stood before him. And at that Israel knew that the soul of his helpless child had asked him, as plainly as words of the tongue can speak, how often she should lie to sleep at night and rise to play in the morning before her mother came to her again.
The tears gushed into his eyes, and he left the children and returned to his wife's chamber.
"Ruth," he cried, "call the child to you, I beseech you!"
"No, no, no!" cried Ruth.
"Let her come to you and touch you and kiss you, and be with you before it is too late," said Israel. "She misses you, and fills the house with flowers for you. It breaks my heart to see her."
"It will break mine also," said Ruth.
But she consented that Naomi should be called, and Fatimah was sent to fetch her.
The sun was setting, and through the window which looked out to the west, over the river and the orange orchards and the palpitating plains beyond, its dying rays came into the room in a bar of golden light. It fell at that instant on Ruth's face, and she was white and wasted. And through the other window of the room, which looked out over the Mellah into the town, and across the market-place to the mosque and to the battery on the hill, there came up from the darkening streets below the shuffle of the feet of a crowd and the sound of many voices. The Jews of Tetuan were trooping back to their own little quarter, that their Moorish masters might lock them into it for the night.
Naomi was already in bed, and Fatimah brought her away in her nightdress. She seemed to know where she was to be taken, for she laughed as Fatimah held her by the hand, and danced as she was led to her mother's chamber. But when she was come to the door of it, suddenly her laughter ceased, and her little face sobered, as if something in the close abode of pain had troubled the senses that were left to her.
It is, perhaps, the most touching experience of the deaf and blind that no greeting can ever welcome them. When Naomi stood like a little white vision at the threshold of the room, Israel took her hand in silence, and drew her up to the pillow of the bed where her mother rested, and in silence Ruth brought the child to her bosom.
For a moment Naomi seemed to be perplexed. She touched her mother's fingers, and they were changed, for they had grown thin and long. Then she felt her face, and that was changed also, for it was become withered and cold. And, missing the grasp of one and the smile of the other, she first turned her little head aside as one that listens closely, and then gently withdrew herself from the arms that held her.
Ruth had watched her with eyes that overflowed, and now she burst into sobs outright.
"The child does not know me!" she cried. "Did I not tell you it would break my heart?"
"Try her again," said Israel; "try her again."
Ruth devoured her tears, and called on Fatimah to bring the child back to her side. Then, loosening the necklace that was about her own neck, she bound it about the neck of Naomi, and also the bracelets that were on her wrists she unclasped and clasped them on the wrists of the child. This she did that Naomi might remember the hands that had been kind to her always. But when the child felt the ornaments she seemed only to know, by the quick instinct of a girl, that she was decked out bravely, and giving no thought to Ruth, who waited and watched for the grasp of recognition and the kiss of joy, she withdrew herself again from her mother's arms, and bounded into the middle of the room, and suddenly began to laugh and to dance.
The sun's dying light, which had rested on Ruth's wasted face, now glistened and sparkled on the jewels of the child, and glowed on her blind eyes, and gleamed on her fair hair, and reddened her white nightdress, while she danced and laughed to her mother's death. Nothing did the child know of death, any more than Adam himself before Abel was slain, and it was almost as if a devil out of hell had entered into her innocent heart and possessed it, that she might make a mock of the dying of the dearest friend she had known on earth.
On and on she danced, to no measure and no time, and not with a child's uncertain step which breaks down at motion as its tongue breaks down at speech, but wildly and deliriously. The room was darkening fast, but still across the nether end, by the foot of the bed, streamed the dull red bar of sunlight with the little red figure leaping and prancing and laughing in the midst of it.
With an awful cry Ruth fell back on the pillow and turned her eyes to the wall. The black woman dropped her head that she might not see. And Israel covered his face and groaned in his tearless agony, "O Lord God, long hast Thou chastised me with whips, and now I am chastised with scorpions!"
Ruth recovered herself quickly. "Bring her to me again!" she faltered; and once more Fatimah brought Naomi back to the bedside. Then, embracing and kissing the child, and seeming to forget in the torment of her trouble that Naomi could not hear her, she cried, "It's your mother, Naomi! your mother, darling, though so sick and changed! Don't you know her, Naomi? Your mother, your own mother, sweet one, your dear mother who loves you so, and must leave you now and see you no more!"
Now what it was in that wild plea that touched the consciousness of the child at last, only God Himself can say. But first Naomi's cheeks grew pale at the embrace of the arms that held her, and then they reddened, and then her little nervous fingers grasped at Ruth's hands again, and then her little lips trembled, and then, at length, she flung herself along Ruth's bosom and nestled close in her embrace.
Ruth fell back on her pillow now with a cry of Joy; the black woman stood and wept by the wall and Israel, unable to bear up his heart any longer was melted and unmanned. The sun had gone down, and the room was darkening rapidly, for the twilight in that land is short; the streets were quiet, and the mooddin of the neighbouring minaret was chanting in the silence, "God is great, God is great!"
After awhile the little one fell asleep at her mother's bosom, and, seeing this, Fatimah would have lifted her away and carried her back to her own bed; but Ruth said, "No; leave her, let me have her with me while I may."
"No one shall take her from you," said Israel.
Then she gazed down at the child's face and said, "It is hard to leave her and never once to have heard her voice."
"That is the bitterest cup of all," said Israel.
"I shall not return to her," said Ruth, "but she shall come to me, and then, perhaps—who knows?—perhaps in the resurrection I shall hear it."
Israel made no answer.
Ruth gazed down at the child again, and said, "My helpless darling! Who will care for you when I am gone?"
"Rest, rest, and sleep!" said Israel.
"Ah, yes, I know," said Ruth. "How foolish of me! You are her father, and you love her also. Yet promise me—promise—"
"For love and tending she shall never lack," said Israel. "And now lie you still, my dearest; lie still and sleep."
She stretched out her hand to him. "Yes, that was what I meant," she said, and smiled. Then a shadow crossed her face in the gloom. "But when I am gone," she said, "will Naomi ever know that her mother who is dead had wronged her?"
"You have never wronged her," said Israel. "Have done, oh, have done!"
"God punished us for our prayer, my husband," said Ruth.
"Peace, peace!" said Israel.
"But God is good," said Ruth, "and surely He will not afflict our child much longer."
"Hush! Hush! You will awaken her," said Israel, not thinking what he said. "Now lie still and sleep, dearest. You are tired also."
She lay quiet for a time, gazing, while the light remained, into the face of the sleeping child, and listening, when the light failed, to her gentle breathing. Then she babbled and crooned over her with a childish joy. "Yes, yes, father is right, and mother must lie quiet—very quiet, and so her little Naomi will sleep long—very long, and wake happy and well in the morning. How bonny she will look! How fresh and rosy!"
She paused a moment. Her laboured breathing came quick and fast. "But shall I be here to see her? shall I?"
She paused again, and then, as though to banish thought, she began to sing in a low voice that was like a moan. Presently her singing ceased, and she spoke again, but this time in broken whispers.
"How soft and glossy her hair is! I wonder if Fatimah will remember to wash it every day. She should twist it around her fingers to keep it in pretty curls. . . . Oh, why did God make my child so beautiful?. . . . Dear me, her morning frock wanted stitching at the sleeves, it's a chance if Habeebah has seen to it. Then there's her underclothing. . . . Will she be deaf and blind and dumb always? I wonder if I shall see her when I. . . . They say that angels are sent. . . . Yes, yes, that's it, when I am there—there—I will go to God and say, 'O Lord! my little girl whom I have left behind, she is. . . . You would never think, O Lord, how many things may happen to one like her. Let me go—only let me watch over her—O Lord, let me be her guar—'"
Her weakness had conquered her, and she was quiet at last. Israel sat in silence by the post of the bed. His heart was surging itself out of his choking breast. The black woman stood somewhere by the wall. After a time Ruth seemed to awake as from sleep. She was in great excitement.
"Israel, Israel!" she cried in a voice of joy, "I have seen a vision. It was Naomi. She was no longer deaf and blind and dumb. She was grown to be a woman, but I knew her instantly. Not a woman either, but a young maiden, and so beautiful, so beautiful! Yes, and she could see and hear and speak."
Israel thought Ruth had become delirious, and he tried to soothe her, but her agitation was not to be overcome. "The Lord hath seen our tears at last," she cried. "He has put our sin beneath His feet. We are forgiven. It will be well with the child yet."
Israel did not try to gainsay her, and at sight and sound of her joy, seeing it so beautiful, yet thinking it so vain, he could not help at last but weep. Presently she became quiet again, and then again, after a little while, she woke as from a sleep.
"I am ready now," she said in a whisper, "quite ready, sweet Heaven, quite, quite ready now."
Then with her one free hand she felt in the darkness for Israel, where he sat beside her, and touching his forehead she smoothed it, and said very softly, "Farewell, my husband!"
And Israel answered her, "Farewell!"
"Good-night!" she whispered.
And Israel drew down her hand from his forehead to his lips and sobbed, and said, "Good-night, beloved!"
Then she put her white lips to the child's blind eyes, and at that moment the spirit of the Lord came to her, and the Lord took her, and she died.
When lamps had been brought into the room, and Fatimah saw that the end had come, she would have lifted Naomi from Ruth's bosom, but the child awoke as she was being moved, and clasped her little fingers about the dead mother's neck and covered the mouth with kisses. And when she felt that the lips did not answer to her lips, and that the arms which had held her did not hold her any longer, but fell away useless, she clung the closer, and tears started to her eyes.
The people of Tetuan were not melted towards Israel by the depth of his sorrow and the breadth of shadow that lay upon him. By noon of the day following the night of Ruth's death, Israel knew that he was to be left alone. It was a rule of the Mellah that on notice being given of a death in their quarter, the clerk of the synagogue should publish it at the first service thereafter, in order that a body of men, called the Hebra Kadisha of Kabranim, the Holy Society of Buriers, might straightway make arrangements for burial. Early prayers had been held in the synagogue at eight o'clock that morning, and no one had yet come near to Israel's house. The men of the Hebra were going about their ordinary occupations. They knew nothing of Ruth's death by official announcement. The clerk had not published it. Israel remembered with bitterness that notice of it had not been sent. Nevertheless, the fact was known throughout Tetuan. There was not a water-carrier in the market-place but had taken it to each house he called at, and passed it to every man he met. Little groups of idle Jewish women had been many hours congregated in the streets outside, talking of it in whispers and looking up at the darkened windows with awe. But the synagogue knew nothing of it. Israel had omitted the customary ceremony, and in that omission lay the advantage of his enemies. He must humble himself and send to them. Until he did so they would leave him alone.
Israel did not send. Never once since the birth of Naomi had he crossed the threshold of the synagogue. He would not cross it now, whether in body or in spirit. But he was still a Jew, with Jewish customs, if he had lost the Jewish faith, and it was one of the customs of the Jews that a body should be buried within twenty-four hours, at farthest, from the time of death. He must do something immediately. Some help must be summoned. What help could it be?
It was useless to think of the Muslimeen. No believer would lend a hand to dig a grave for an unbeliever, or to make apparel for his dead. It was just as idle to think of the Jews. If the synagogue knew nothing of this burial, no Jew in the Mellah would be found so poor that he would have need to know more. And of Christians of any sort or condition there were none in all Tetuan.
The gall of Israel's heart rose to his throat. Was he to be left alone with his dead wife? Did his enemies wish to see him howk out her grave with his own hands? Or did they expect him to come to them with bowed forehead and bended knee? Either way their reckoning was a mistake. They might leave him terribly and awfully alone—alone in his hour of mourning even as they had left him alone in his hour of rejoicing, when he had married the dear soul who was dead. But his strength and energy they should not crush: his vital and intellectual force they should not wither away. Only one thing they could do to touch him—they could shrivel up his last impulse of sweet human sympathy. They were doing it now.
When Israel had put matters to himself so, he despatched a message to the Governor at the Kasbah, and received, in answer, six State prisoners, fettered in pairs, under the guard of two soldiers.
The burial took place within the limit of twenty-four hours prescribed by Jewish custom. It was twilight when the body was brought down from the upper room to the patio. There stood the coffin on a trestle that had been raised for it on chairs standing back to back. And there, too, sat Israel, with Naomi and little black Ali beside him.
Israel's manner was composed; his face was as firm as a rock, and his dress was more costly than Tetuan had ever seen him wear before. Everything that related to the burial he had managed himself, down to the least or poorest detail. But there was nothing poor about it in the larger sense. Israel was a rich man now, and he set no value on his riches except to subdue the fate that had first beaten him down and to abash the enemies who still menaced him. Nothing was lacking that money could buy in Tetuan to make this burial an imposing ceremony. Only one thing it wanted—it wanted mourners, and it had but one.
Unlike her father, little Naomi was visibly excited. She ran to and fro, clutched at Israel's clothes and seemed to look into his face, clasped the hand of little Ali and held it long as if in fear. Whether she knew what work was afoot, and, if she knew it, by what channel of soul or sense she learnt it, no man can say. That she was conscious of the presence of many strangers is certain, and when the men from the Kasbah brought the roll of white linen down the stairway, with the two black women clinging to it, kissing its fringe and wailing over it, she broke away from Israel and rushed in among them with a startled cry, and her little white arms upraised. But whatever her impulse, there was no need to check her. The moment she had touched her mother she crept back in dread to her father's side.
"God be gracious to my father, look at that," whispered Fatimah.
"My child, my poor child," said Israel, "is there but one thing in life that speaks to you? And is that death? Oh, little one, little one!"
It was a strange procession which then passed out of the patio. Four of the prisoners carried the coffin on their shoulders, walking in pairs according to their fetters. They were gaunt and bony creatures. Hunger had wasted their sallow cheeks, and the air of noisome dungeons had sunken their rheumy eyes. Their clothes were soiled rags, and over them, and concealing them down to their waists and yet lower, hung the deep, rich, velvet pall, with its long silk fringes. In front walked the two remaining prisoners, each bearing a great plume in his left hand—the right arm, as well as the right leg, being chained. On either side was a soldier, carrying a lighted lantern, which burnt small and feeble in the twilight, and last of all came Israel himself, unsupported and alone. Thus they passed through the little crowd of idlers that had congregated at the door, through the streets of the Mellah and out into the marketplace, and up the narrow lane that leads to the chief town gate.
There is something in the very nature of power that demands homage, and the people of Tetuan could not deny it to Israel. As the procession went through the town they cleared a way for it, and they were silent until it had gone. Within the gate of the Mellah, a shocket was killing fowls and taking his tribute of copper coins, but he stopped his work and fell back as the procession approached. A blind beggar crouching at the other side of the gate was reciting passages of the Koran, and two Arabs close at his elbow were wrangling over a game at draughts which they were playing by the light of a flare, but both curses and Koran ceased as the procession passed under the arch. In the market-place a Soosi juggler was performing before a throng of laughing people, and a story-teller was shrieking to the twang of his ginbri; but the audience of the juggler broke up as the procession appeared, and the ginbri of the storyteller was no more heard. The hammering in the shops of the gunsmiths was stopped, and the tinkling of the bells of the water-carriers was silenced. Mules bringing wood from the country were dragged out of the path, and the town asses, with their panniers full of street-filth, were drawn up by the wall. From the market-place and out of the shops, out of the houses and out of the mosque itself, the people came trooping in crowds, and they made a long close line on either side of the course which the procession must take. And through this avenue of onlookers the strange company made its way—the two prisoners bearing the plumes, the four others bearing the coffin, the two soldiers carrying the lanterns, and Israel last of all, unsupported and alone. Nothing was heard in the silence of the people but the tramp of the feet of the six men, and the clank of their chains.
The light of the lanterns was on the faces of some of them, and every one knew them for what they were. It was on the face of Israel also, yet he did not flinch. His head was held steadily upward; he looked neither to the right nor to the left, but strode firmly along.
The Jewish cemetery was outside the town walls, and before the procession came to it the darkness had closed in. Its flat white tombstones, all pointing toward Jerusalem, lay in the gloom like a flock of sheep asleep among the grass. It had no gate but a gap in the fence, and no fence but a hedge of the prickly pear and the aloe.
Israel had opened a grave for Ruth beside the grave of the old rabbi her father. He had asked no man's permission to do so, but if no one had helped at that day's business, neither had any one dared to hinder. And when the coffin was set down by the grave-side no ceremony did Israel forget and none did he omit. He repeated the Kaddesh, and cut the notch in his kaftan; he took from his breast the little linen bag of the white earth of the land of promise and laid it under the head; he locked a padlock and flung away the key. Last of all, when the body had been taken out of the coffin and lowered to its long home, he stepped in after it, and called on one of the soldiers to lend him a lantern. And then, kneeling at the foot of his dead wife, he touched her with both his hands, and spoke these words in a clear, firm voice, looking down at her where she lay in the veil that she had used to wear in the synagogue, and speaking to her as though she heard: "Ruth, my wife, my dearest, for the cruel wrong which I did you long ago when I suffered you to marry me, being a man such as I was, under the ban of my people, forgive me now, my beloved, and ask God to forgive me also."
The dark cemetery, the six prisoners in their clanking irons, the two soldiers with their lanterns the open grave, and this strong-hearted man kneeling within it, that he might do his last duty, according to the custom of his race and faith, to her whom he had wronged and should meet no more until the resurrection itself reunited them! The traffic of the streets had begun again by this time, and between the words which Israel had spoken the low hum of many voices had come over the dark town walls.
The six prisoners went back to the Kasbah with joyful hearts, for each carried with him a paper which procured his freedom on the day following. But Israel returned to his home with a soured and darkened mind. As he had plucked his last handful of the grass, and flung it over his shoulder, saying, "They shall spring in the cities as the grass in the earth," he had asked himself what it mattered to him though all the world were peopled, now that she, who had been all the world to him, was dead. God had left him as a lonely pilgrim in a dreary desert. Only one glimpse of human affection had he known as a man, and here it was taken from him for ever.
And when he remembered Naomi, he quarrelled with God again. She was a helpless exile among men, a creature banished from all human intercourse, a living soul locked in a tabernacle of flesh. Was it a good God who had taken the mother from such a child—the child from such a mother? Israel was heart-smitten, and his soul blasphemed. It was not God but the devil that ruled the world. It was not justice but evil that governed it.
Thus did this outcast man rebel against God, thinking of the child's loss and of his own; but nevertheless by the child itself he was yet to be saved from the devil's snare, and the ways wherein this sweet flower, fresh from God's hand, wrought upon his heart to redeem it were very strange and beautiful.
The promise which Israel made to Ruth at her death, that Naomi should not lack for love and tending, he faithfully fulfilled. From that time forward he became as father and mother both to the child.