Part 6, Chapter 4

Part VI

Chapter 4

A LONG passage brought them to a number of small, square, low chambers41 leading into each other. They were lighted by brass lamps, placed at intervals in vacant niches, that once held corpses, and which were now soiled by the smoky flame. Between two and three hundred individuals were assembled in these chambers, at first scarcely distinguishable by those who descended from the broad daylight; but by degrees the eyesight became accustomed to the dim and vaporous atmosphere, and Alroy recognised in the final and more illumined chamber a high cedar cabinet, the type of the ark, and which held the sacred vessels and the sanctified copy of the law.

Standing in lines, with their heads mystically covered,42 the forlorn remnant of Israel, captives in their ancient city, avowed, in spite of all their sufferings, their fidelity to their God, and, notwithstanding all the bitterness of hope delayed, their faith in the fulfilment of his promises. Their simple service was completed, their prayers were read, their responses made, their law exhibited, and their charitable offerings announced by their high priest. After the service, the venerable Zimri, opening a volume of the Talmud, and fortified by the opinions of all those illustrious and learned doctors, the heroes of his erudite conversations with the aged Maimon, expounded the law to the congregation of the people.43

‘It is written,’ said the Rabbi, ‘“Thou shalt have none other God but me.” Now know ye what our father Abraham said when Nimrod ordered him to worship fire?* “Why not water,” answered Abraham, “which can put out fire? why not the clouds, which can pour forth water? why not the winds, which can produce clouds? why not God, which can create winds?”’

A murmur of approbation sounded throughout the congregation.

‘Eliezer,’ said Zimri, addressing himself to a young Rabbi, ‘it is written, that he took a rib from Adam when he was asleep. Is God then a robber?’

The young Rabbi looked puzzled, and cast his eyes on the ground. The congregation was perplexed and a little alarmed.

‘Is there no answer?’ said Zimri.

‘Rabbi,’ said a stranger, a tall, swarthy African pilgrim, standing in a corner, and enveloped in a red mantle, over which a lamp threw a flickering light; ‘Rabbi, some robbers broke into my house last night, and stole an earthen pipkin,* but they left a golden vase in its stead.’

‘It is well said; it is well said,’ exclaimed the congregation. The applause was loud.

‘Learned Zimri,’ continued the African, ‘it is written in the Gemara, that there was a youth in Jerusalem who fell in love with a beautiful damsel, and she scorned him. And the youth was so stricken with his passion that he could not speak; but when he beheld her, he looked at her imploringly, and she laughed. And one day the youth, not knowing what to do with himself, went out into the desert; and towards night he returned home, but the gates of the city were shut. And he went down into the valley of Jehoshaphat, and entered the tomb of Absalom and slept;44 and he dreamed a dream; and next morning he came into the city smiling. And the maiden met him, and she said, “Is that thou; art thou a laugher?” and he answered, “Behold, yesterday being disconsolate, I went out of the city into the desert, and I returned home, and the gates of the city were shut, and I went down into the valley of Jehoshaphat, and I entered the tomb of Absalom, and I slept, and I dreamed a dream, and ever since then I have laughed.” And the damsel said, “Tell me thy dream.” And he answered and said, “I may not tell my dream only to my wife, for it regards her honour.” And the maiden grew sad and curious, and said, “I am thy wife, tell me thy dream.” And straightway they went and were married, and ever after they both laughed. Now, learned Zimri, what means this tale, an idle jest for a master of the law, yet it is written by the greatest doctor of the Captivity?’

‘It passeth my comprehension,’ said the chief Rabbi.

Rabbi Eliezer was silent; the congregation groaned.

‘Now hear the interpretation,’ said the African. ‘The youth is our people, and the damsel is our lost Sion, and the tomb of Absalom proves that salvation can only come from the house of David. Dost thou hear this, young man?’ said the African, coming forward and laying his hand on Alroy. ‘I speak to thee because I have observed a deep attention in thy conduct.’

The Prince of the Captivity started, and shot a glance at the dark visage before him, but the glance read nothing. The upper part of the countenance of the African was half concealed by masses of dark matted hair, and the lower by his uncouth robes. A flashing eye was its only characteristic, which darted forth like lightning out of a black cloud.

‘Is my attention the only reason that induces you to address me?’ inquired Alroy.

‘Whoever gave all his reasons?’ replied the African, with a laughing sneer.

‘I seek not to learn them. Suffice it, stranger, that how much soever you may mean, as much I can understand.’

‘’Tis well. Learned Zimri, is this thy pupil? I congratulate thee. I will match him against the hopeful Eliezer.’* So saying, the lofty African stalked out of the chamber. The assembly also broke up. Alroy would willingly have immediately followed the African, and held some further and more private conversation with him; but some minutes elapsed, owing to the officious attentions of Zimri, before he could escape; and, when he did, his search after the stranger was vain. He inquired among the congregation, but none knew the African. He was no man’s guest and no man’s debtor, and apparently had never before been seen.