The Prince of the House of David
My Dear Father:
My trembling fingers scarcely hold the light reed with which I am about to write you concerning the extraordinary things I have seen and heard; but they tremble only with joy. Oh, my father, my dear, dear father, Messias HAS COME! I have seen Him! I have heard His voice! He has truly come! Oh, joy, joy! My eyes have beheld Him of whom Moses and the Prophets did write! But let me not anticipate. In order that you may believe as I believe, though you have seen Him not, I will give to you an account of those events which have happened since my last letter was sent to you. I will try to write free from emotion, and keep my bounding heart still, and my hand calm, while I set in order all that has taken place, that your understanding may judge of them with that candor and wisdom which makes men see in you the wisest Israelite in the land of Egypt. You will recollect that in my last epistle, which went by the Cairo caravan, I mentioned that Rabbi Amos, taking advantage of the recess in his duties at the Temple, the course of the venerable Elihud being now waiting upon the altar, made up his mind to pay his annual visit to the wheat fields which he has in charge, near Jericho, and which, as you know, are not his own lands, but are in trust to him for the heirs of the brave soldier, Manassch, of the tribe of Benjamin, who was slain in trying to rescue Jericho from the Romans. Rabbi Amos, also, felt no little curiosity to hear John of Jordan, as he is called, whose fame has spread far and wide. At the request of Mary and myself, he consented that we should accompany him. John, the young man who is betrothed to my cousin, having gone to the sea of Galilee to see about certain ships which were there in charge of his brother James and his father, was to meet us at Gilgal, and accompany us to Jordan; for he thinks and speaks of nothing now but the prophet of the wilderness, from whom he feels that he suffers great loss to be absent even for a day. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho had become recently unsafe, on account of the boldness of an insurrectionary chief called Barabbas, who a year ago made insurrection against the Romans, but was defeated, and his band dispersed into the mountains south of the sea of Sodom; but at last, driven to famine, he has taken to robbing caravans; and since the number of travelers has increased so much between Jerusalem and Jordan, to hear John preach, and be baptized of him, he has fallen upon large parties of them, and taken from them all their goods and money. On this account Rabbi Amos accepted the courteous offer of the escort of the young Centurion, who had been ordered by the Procurator, Pontius Pilate, to keep the road open between Jerusalem and Jericho; for even the Roman couriers have been stopped by this fearless robber, and some of them slain by him. The pride of Rabbi Amos shrunk from this dependence upon a Roman arm, in making a peaceful journey through his own land; but there is alas! Dear father, no one now among the seed of Abraham to assert our natural rights. We can only bow our heads to the yoke the Lord God has placed upon our necks. It was faint dawn when we rose from our couches to prepare for the journey. The mules upon which we were to ride were brought into the court by the two swarthy Gibeonite serfs, whom Rabbi Amos holds in his service, and caparisoned with rich saddles covered with Persian saddle-cloths, embroidered with gold. The two pack mules were also made ready, on one of which was the traveling equipage of my cousin Mary and myself, which Rabbi Amos smilingly said took up more space than the goods and traveling wares of a Damascus merchant. At sunrise, after we had kneeled upon the housetop, in view of the Temple, and sent up our prayers with its sacrifices and clouds of ascending incense, we descended to the court-yard to mount for the road. There was a stout mule for good Rabbi Amos, though the Centurion sent him a handsome Persian horse to ride; but my uncle said that he had never trusted himself on so uncertain an animal as a horse in his youth, and he thought he should scarcely adventure such a fear in his old age; so he preferred his mule. Having got ourselves seated upon our cushioned saddles, and our veils ready to draw over our faces, we expected each moment the arrival of the Centurion and his cohort of horse; but a Numidian slave came running, and bowing to the ground before Rabbi Amos, said that the Centurion would meet us at the corner of the two ways, beyond the walls, near Bethany. Whereupon we all mounted, and took our way towards the East Gate, which Pilate has recently repaired, and named the Porta Caesar. We were five persons in all–Rabbi Amos, my cousin Mary and myself, and the two Gibeonites–both of whom were young men, whose fathers for many centuries had been servants in the family of Amos, even from the time of Joshua, when this people deceived him by their craftiness, and were doomed to perpetual servitude. I am much struck with the appearance of this singular race of men. They have very dark faces, eagle-beaked noses, flashing black eyes, and slender, lithe forms. They look cunning and treacherous, but seem to be cowardly, and easily controlled by firmness. They are incapable of any attachments, and gratitude seems to be thrown away upon them. I heard a singular tradition about them from one of the Levites who often visits Rabbi Amos, which is, that they are descended from the servants of Noah, which were saved with him in the ark, but who, as being of an inferior rank, were not included in the record of Noah’s family. But doubtless you have heard the same idle tradition. The morning was bright and cheerful, with the golden sun pouring its light over temple and tower, castle and roof, wall and rampart, hill and grove, valley and brook, one and all of which were lighted up with the glory of his morning beams, As we turned the street leading to the Sheep Gate, we passed the house of Caiaphas, the High Priest, whom I saw standing upon the marble porch of his superb palace. He was not arrayed in his sumptuous robes, with the breastplate of dazzling stones, and kingly cap, as I had seen him in the Temple, but was dressed in a flowing black robe, over which was thrown a scarf of white linen; and upon his snow-white locks he wore a scarlet hood, a dress common to all the priests, so that if I had not recognized him by his tall and commanding form, and flowing white hair, and piercing eye, as he surveyed us, I should not have known that it was a High Priest. He spoke to Rabbi Amos, who did him reverence, and lowly did I bend my own head before the majesty of the representative of God on earth. A little further on we met a party coming from the country beyond Kedron, with large cages upon their mules, laden with turtle doves and young pigeons, which they were carrying to the Temple, to be sold there for sacrifices. My heart pitied the innocent things, whose blue, pretty heads were thrust by the dozen through the rough bars of their prison-houses, as they cast their soft eyes up at me, as if asking me to deliver them from their bondage. And when I reflected that they were to offer up their innocent lives for the sins of the men and women of Israel, my cheek burned with the blush of shame, that we were so guilty before the Lord God, that the innocent must die for us. As Mary was riding behind me, in order to let the laden mules pass with their immense cages, one of the turtle-doves, affrighted by the noise of the streets, extricated itself from between the bars, and, spreading its wings, flew into the air, and then taking its flight for the country, soared far above the city walls, and the lofty summit of the octagonal tower of Psephinos, and disappeared in the distance. I felt rejoiced at the innocent bird’s escape, and sent my good wishes for its safe return to its lodge in the wilderness. Just before we reached the Sheep Gate, by which we were to gain the Jericho road, we met a poor blind man leading a lamb, or rather being led by a tame lamb. He also had two pigeons in his bosom. He was asked by Rabbi Amos, who knew him, whither he was going. He answered, that he was going to the Temple to sacrifice them. "Nay," said Amos, with surprise, "thou wilt not sacrifice thy lamb, Bartimeus!" "I have promised them to God, Rabbi Amos, and I may not break my promise without sin." "But thy lamb leadeth thee everywhere. It is eyes to thee. Thou canst not do without it." "God will provide me another lamb," he answered, his face beaming with hope. "But thy doves? Thou earnest by them many a mite in a day, they are so well taught in cunning and pleasant tricks to please children. If thou must sacrifice according to thy vow, spare these so needful to thee, and here is money to buy doves and another lamb," answered my benevolent uncle. "Hear what I have to say," answered Bartimeus. "My father became sick, and was likely to die, and I vowed a vow to God that if he would heal the old man, my father, I would sacrifice unto him one of my doves. The next day my mother, who has nourished my childhood, and loved me, though I was born blind, with all her heart, was also taken sick. I then vowed my other pigeon. The same night my little daughter, my little blind daughter, whose face I never saw, and who never saw her father’s face, was sick nigh unto death. Then it was that I vowed all that remained to me, even the lamb of my bosom, whom I love next to my child! My father, my mother, my child are restored, and in my joy I am on my way to the Temple to offer these gifts of God to Him. It will be hard, sir, but shall I not perform my vow? It will be hard to part with them, I shall miss them so much; but God will not let blind Bartimeus suffer, since He will see that he offereth, in offering his two little doves and his lamb, all that he hath." With these words he moved on, the lamb obeying the string which he held, softly moving on before; while I could see the sightless eyes of the righteous son and pious father trickle tears, as he kissed, and kissed again the precious doves that lay in his bosom. This little occurrence made me sad; yet I honored the resolute piety of this poor man, whose eyes, though they saw not men, seemed to see God, and feel his presence. There is still humble piety in the land, my dear father, and finding it not among the proud and splendid priests, we must look for it in the hearts of the poor and humble, like Bartimeus. Upon reaching the gate we were not detained by the Roman captain, who kept others, examining their passports, and taking gate-money from those who were without them; for though foot passengers may pass in and our free, yet from those who ride horses or mules is exacted money, unless they have passes signed by the Procurator. But the captain of the gate no sooner saw us than he, with great civility, made us pass through the gate in advance of others who were ready to go through, saying that the young Centurion, whose name, I think, I have not told you is AEmilius, had given him orders not to detain us. The stern, iron-cased Roman soldiers that stood about the gate, struck me as having just the aspect and forms of men who could conquer the world. When I reflected that there was not a city on the earth, at whose gates did not stand just such men as these, armed, and clad, and bearded like them, I could not but respect the universal power of the Roman empire, while I feared it. Once outside of the gates, the air blew fresh from the hills of olives, laden with fragrance. After being so long confined within the walls and narrow streets, it seemed to me that I had just broken out of my cage, like the pretty blue-headed turtle dove, and I felt like winging my way too to the free deserts, if wings of a dove so ardently longed for by King David, could only have been given me. On our right, not far from the gate, Rabbi Amos pointed out to me the pool of Bethesda, and turning my eyes towards it, I beheld a most touching spectacle. All the five porches were filled with sick and impotent folk, the lame, halt, blind, and withered, waiting, as my uncle told us, for the moving of the waters; for, at certain seasons, he said that God sends an angel down into the pool to trouble the water, when, whosoever steps in first, is made whole of whatsoever disease he may have. I could not but stop my mule to regard so remarkable a sight as this congregation of miserable people, of whom there must have been no less than four hundred; some leaning, pale and haggard, against the columns; some creeping about it helplessness, like brutes trying to get nigher the pool, from which the stronger thrust them back; some reclining patiently upon their beds, in humble waiting for God’s time; and others being borne thither on the shoulders of men. Suddenly, as I was about to ride on, and shut out this painful sight, one of the most extraordinary scenes that human eyes could witness took place. The surface of the pool, which was hitherto perfectly placid, all at once became agitated, as if it were boiling, and began to swell, rush, or rather swing from side to side, in a remarkable manner. No sooner was this seen, than there arose from the throng of wretched invalids who crowded its steps, a cry of four hundred voices all at once, shrieks of joy, shouts of wonder, words of amazed exclamation, while a simultaneous movement took place of the whole mass of human bodies, which became as wildly tossed to and fro as were the waters. Those nearest plunged madly in, while those behind rushed down, some wildly shrieking in their agonizing haste, and some uttering the most fearful curses, as they found their was obstructed by the impenetrable masses before them. The most weak and impotent being most eager, and being farthest off, make superhuman exertions to gain the pool, howling, and climbing with hands and feet, over the backs of others, to be hurled to the ground and trampled upon by those who were behind them. Some strong men, who tried to open the way for one whom they were carrying, drew their knives, and proceeded to cut their way through the haggard and mouthing wretches who crowded the way, which violence being seen by the Romans from the gate, they went down, some score of them, with drawn swords, to quell the tumult; for the whole pool was in an uproar. Unable to endure the dreadful scene, we rode rapidly on; but I afterwards heard that before quiet was restored, several men were slain, and that five of those who had got into the pool were drowned beneath the feet of those people who recklessly leaped in over the heads of others upon them. "Is it possible," I asked Rabbi Amos, after we had reached the borders of Kedron, "that it is the act of an angel that can produce all this confusion and outbreak of the worst of human passions?" "There is no doubt that the troubling of the waters is a miracle," he answered. "The act of the angel is good. His touch gives healing power to the water that cures diseases; and shall his benevolence be answerable for these dreadful and disgusting consequences which we have just witnessed?" I was silent; but I sighed for the wickedness of man, that can turn even God’s gifts into evils in the reception of them. We now turned a little to the right, out of the highway; for as the bridge by which the road of Jericho is usually gained was being solidly rebuilt by the Romans, we had to follow the brook-side till we came near Absalom’s Pillar, at the sight of which, the whole history of that misguided young prince came before me. How wonderful, that the glorious head of golden hair, of which he was vain, and of which the poets of that day speak more than once, should have been the instrument of his death! As we journeyed further on there were ancient oak trees in sight, which the Rabbi said were old enough to be a part of the extensive forest through which he rode so fatally, and doubtless were. He showed me after awhile, and some distance form Jerusalem, the pit into which the ten young men who slew Absalom cast him, heaping great stones upon him. This prince must have been as brave as he was beautiful and disobedient, that when hanging by his hair in the oak, and incapable of doing them harm, it should require "ten young men to compass him and smite him." Or, possible, as Rabbi Amos thinks, this number combined to take, together, the blame before King David, which no one of them liked to encounter alone! How interesting to me is every spot about Jerusalem! I seem to live in the ancient days, when I see the scenes where have been enacted the great events which constitute the history and glory of our nation. We had hardly reached the place where the two roads meet, when we heard to the west the sound of the galloping of a large body of horse, and the next moment the young Roman Centurion came in sight, by the road from the Horse Gate, riding at the head of a troop of horse, whose martial appearance, with the ringing of their armor, and the melody of their bugles, made my blood leap; and I am sure if I could have seen my eyes, I should have discovered in them a martial light. AEmilius looked like a prince, and his burnished armor shone in the sun like armor of fire. At his side rode a youth who bore the eagle of his band; but the Centurion himself carried in his hand only the badge of his rank, which was a vine-rod bound with rings of gold. He saluted us with that courtesy which distinguishes his every motion, and then dividing his troop into two bodies, half of whom, trotting on a-head, led the van, and the other half, falling behind, served as a rear-guard. He then gave the word to move forward. The Centurion himself ode either by the side of Rabbi Amos, or near our bridles, but he did not so far occupy himself with us as to forget his duty as captain, which he fulfilled with the utmost vigilance. Farewell, dear father, till my next, when I will resume my narrative of the events which have taken place since I left Jerusalem. The God of our father Abraham be your defence and shield.
Your affectionate daughter,