Saturday, October 9, 2010

Manasseh the Jew

THE two friends had been talking after their supper about the repulse of the morning, and were now musing over the problem before them in a perplexed silence, when Charidemus started up from his seat, and brought down his hand with an emphatic blow upon the table. "I have it," he cried, "Manasseh the Jew!"

Charondas had heard the story of the combat by the ford of the Orontes, and of the confidence, or what, if time had allowed, would have been the confidence, of the dying Persian; but he did not see the connection of the name with the subject of their discussion. "How can the Jew serve you?" he said.

"I am told," answered Charidemus, "that the Jew knows everything. Anyhow I feel that I have got hold of a clue. I am driven to despair by having to climb up what I may call a perfectly blank wall, without a single crevise or crack to put my foot in. Here is something that may give me a hold. This Manasseh is doubtless a man of some importance, one who has dealings with great people. What Artabazus wanted me to do for him, what I am to say to Manasseh, or Manasseh is to say to me, I have not an idea. But still I feel that there is something. There will be some kind of relation between us; he will recognize the chain and bracelet; he will see that Artabazus trusted me. Perhaps I shall be able to help him, and perhaps he will be able to help me. Anyhow I shall go."

"And you had better go alone," suggested Charondas.

"Perhaps so," replied the Macedonian.

It was not difficult to find Manasseh. The Jews had a quarter of their own in Damascus which they had occupied, though not, it may be supposed, without some interruptions, for several centuries. In this quarter Manasseh was one of the leading inhabitants, and Charidemus was at once directed to his dwelling. The exterior of the Damascus houses seldom gave much idea of what the interior was like. You entered by an unpretending door in a mean-looking front, and found something like a palace within. Manasseh's dwelling surprised the visitor in this way. It was built round a spacious quadrangle, in the centre of which a fountain played, surrounded by orange, pomegranate, and myrtle trees. The ground floor of the building was occupied by a colonnade. Above this was the apartment of the family, furnished with a splendour and wealth known only to a few. Chance comers and visitors on business Manasseh the Jew was accustomed to see in a plainly-furnished room close to the gate. The Jews were even then beginning to learn that painful lesson of prudence as regarded the display of their wealth which afterwards they had so many reasons to practise.

Manasseh was civil to his visitor, whom, from a hasty survey of his person, he conjectured to be an impecunious young officer, whose object was to borrow some money, for the Jews had already begun to follow the trade of money-lender. When Charidemus produced the chain and bracelets which had belonged to Artabazus, Manasseh's first impression was that they were articles offered by way of security for an advance. He took them up in a careless way to examine them, but his look and manner changed at a nearer inspection.

"How came you by these?" he asked, and his voice was stern and even menacing.

The Macedonian told the story. "What more Artabazus would have told me," he went on to say, "I know not. He had only strength to utter your name, and the place where I might find you. But I felt bound to come. It was clear that for some reason he wished it; and it was the least I could do for him."

"You have done well, sir," said the Jew. "Pardon me if I had harsher thoughts of you. And now, let me think."

Manasseh walked up and down the room several times in an agitation that contrasted strangely enough with the cool and business-like air which he had worn at the beginning of the interview. Then he paused.

"Young man," he said, "you are not, I know, of my faith, and I cannot ask you, as I would ask one of my own race, to swear by the God of Israel. But I have lived long enough among the Gentiles to know that there are oaths which bind them as surely as to swear by the Lord binds a son of Abraham. And I have learnt, too, that there is among them, even as there is among us, that which is stronger than all oaths, the sense of right and truth in the heart. I believe that you are one of those who have this sense; I seem to see it in your face; you have shown it by coming here to-day on this errand. A man who keeps his word to the dead will not break it to the living. I will trust you. And now listen to my story. The dead man whose chain and bracelets you have brought here to-day was, I may say, my friend. Between his race and mine there has been a close tie for many generations. He, indeed, as I dare say you know, was of one of the noblest houses of Persia, and we were of the captivity of Judah. Still my fathers have done some service for his in times past, as, indeed, his have done for mine. You would not care to hear how it was; but, believe me, it was so. We of the house of Israel can sometimes do more than the world would think. But enough of this; let me go on to that which concerns the present. The sister of this Artabazus is Barsiné, who was the wife and is the widow of Memnon the Rhodian."

Charidemus gave an unmistakable start when he heard the name.

"What!" cried the Jew, "you know her?"

Charidemus in as few words as possible related how he had been taken prisoner at Halicarnassus, and had there made the acquaintance of Memnon and his family.

The Jew's face lighted up when he heard it. “You make my task easier. I now feel that I can speak to you, not only as to a man of honour, but as to a friend. When Memnon sent his wife and his niece—you saw the niece?"

The young man assented, not without the consciousness of a blush.

"When Memnon sent his wife and niece to court, Artabazus made interest with the king that they should be allowed to reside here in Damascus, rather than at Susa. The climate was better, and there were other reasons. I may tell you, though I dare say you had an opportunity of seeing so much for yourself, that Artabazus, like his sister, had had a Greek bringing up, and that there were some things in Persian ways that did not please him or her. Well, being in high favour with the king, he got his request. Barsiné and the girl were sent to this city, her brother making himself responsible for them. I found a home for them; and I have managed their affairs. A few weeks since the king, as you know, sent all his harem here, all his hostages and guests, in fact, all his establishment of every sort and kind.

“Then came his defeat at Issus, and now everything belongs to the conquerors. I had hoped that Barsiné and her niece might have lived quietly here till these troubles were passed. If all this crowd of men and women and slaves had been left at Susa it might have been so. But the situation is changed. They too must be included in any list of the prisoners that have come into the possession of your king. I have been thinking over the matter long and anxiously. Once or twice it has occurred to me to send them away. But whither was I to send them? What place is out of the reach of your arms?"

He paused, overpowered by the perplexities of the situation. "God of Israel," he cried, "what am I to do?"

"What says the Lady Barsiné herself?" interposed the Macedonian. "I judged her, when I was in her company, to be one who could very well think for herself."

"She is so," said Manasseh, "and in any case she must be told of her brother's death. Come to me again, if you will, in two days' time, and come after dark. It is as well to be secret."

Charidemus took his leave, just a little touched in conscience by the Jew's praises. He felt that he had gone on an errand of his own, in which, indeed, he had succeeded beyond all his hopes; and he was ashamed to be praised for a loyalty to the dead which had certainly been quite second in his thoughts.

He did not fail, it may be supposed, to present himself at the appointed time. The Jew greeted him warmly, and said, "The Lady Barsiné wishes to see you. Let us go; but not by the street. It would be well that neither you nor I should be seen."

He led the way into the garden. There was light enough, the moon having now risen, for Charidemus to catch a glimpse of spacious lawns, terraces ornamented with marble urns and balustrades, and trees of a stately growth. His guide conducted him down a long avenue of laurel, and another of myrtle, that ran at right angles with the first. At the end of the second they came to a small door in the wall. This brought them into a lane which the Macedonian seemed to recognize, so far as was possible in so different a light, as that into which he and his com-panion had strayed three days before. Almost facing the gate by which they had gone out was another in the opposite wall. This opened into another garden, arranged similarly to that which they had just left, but much smaller. The house had no front to the street, but stood pavilionwise in the centre of the enclosure. Manasseh knocked, or rather kicked, at a small postern door. When this had been cautiously opened a few inches, the bolts having been withdrawn but the chain remaining fastened, the Jew gave his name, which was evidently a sufficient password, the chain being immediately withdrawn by the porter.

"The Lady Barsiné awaits you," said the man, and led the way down a richly carpeted passage on which their footsteps fell in perfect silence, to a room which was evidently the library. By the side of the hearth, on which a small fire of cedar-wood was burning, was a chair of ebony richly inlaid with ivory. Close to this stood a citron table, on which was a silver lamp and a roll of manuscript, which a curious eye might have found to be the "Dirges" of Pindar. Book-cases and busts were ranged round the walls, which were hung with embroidery representing the contest of Athena and Poseidon, a design copied from the West Pediment of the Parthenon. One wall of the room, however, was occupied by a replica of Protogenes's great masterpiece, "The Piping Satyr."

The room was empty when the two visitors were shown into it; but in the course of a few minutes Barsiné appeared. Grief had robbed her of the brilliant bloom of her beauty, but had given to her face a new and more spiritual expression. When Charidemus last saw her she might have been a painter's model for Helen, a Helen, that is, who had not learnt to prefer a lover to a husband; now she was the ideal of an Andromaché. She caught hold of Manasseh's hand, and lifted it to her lips, and then turned to greet his companion. She had been prepared for his coming, but the sight of him overcame her self-control. She was not one of the women who sob and cry aloud. Persian though she was—and the Persians were peculiarly vehement in the expression of their grief—she had something of a Spartan fortitude; but she could not keep back the big tears that rolled silently down her cheeks.

"It is a sad pleasure to see you," she said at last, addressing the Macedonian, when she had recovered her voice. "My Memnon liked you well; he often spoke of you after you left us; and now I find that my dear brother liked you and trusted you also. I know you will help me if you can. Have you any counsel to give to the most unhappy of women?"

"Alexander," said the Macedonian, "is the most generous of conquerors. I would say, Appeal to his clemency and compassion. I know that he respected and admired your husband. I have heard him say —for he has often deigned to talk of such things with me—that Memnon was the only adversary that he feared in all Asia. 'Whether or no I am an Achilles'—these, lady, were his very words—'he is certainly a Hector.' Go to him, then, I say—he comes to-morrow or the next day—throw yourself at his feet. Believe me, you will not repent of it."

"Oh, sir," cried the unhappy woman, "that is hard advice for the widow of Memnon and the daughter of Artabazus to follow. To grovel before him on the ground as though I were a slave! It is more than I can bear. Oh! Cannot I fly from him to some safe place? Tell me, father," and she caught Manasseh's hand, "you know everything, tell me whither I can go. Should I not be out of his reach in Tyre?"

"Lady," said Manasseh, "I have put this question to myself many times, and have not found an answer. I do not know how you can escape from him. As for Tyre, I am not even sure that it will attempt to stand out against him; but I am sure that if it does it will bitterly repent it. She repented of having stood out against Nebuchadnezzar, and Nebuchadnezzar is to this man as a vulture is to an eagle. And there are words, too, in our sacred books which make me think that an evil time is coming for her. No! I would say, Do not trust yourself to Tyre. And would you gain if you fled to the outer barbarians, to those that dwell by the fountains of the Nile, if you could reach them, or to the Arabs? Would they treat you, think you, better than he, who is at least half a Greek?"

"Let me think," cried Barsiné, "let me have time."

"Yes," said Manasseh, "but not so much time as would rob your supplication of all its grace. Go to him as a suppliant; let him not claim you as a prisoner."

Some little talk on other matters followed; but the conversation languished, and it was not long before the visitors took their leave.

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