Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Begging Wife—A Legend of Jerusalem

The morning broke; the mists of night that veiled the clefts between Olivet and Jerusalem yielded to the return of life. The Apostle James was coming down the mount—he who was called the Just, the brother of the Lord. He had spent the night communing with God on the mountain, even as the Master had been wont. And he loved the spot where his Lord had wrestled in agony.

The apostle was going home, but, quitting the olive grove, he tarried a little on the hillside overlooking the valley. The sun was about to rise, a fresh wind scattering the curling mists. Close by lay the garden of Gethsemane; Brook Cedron murmured below. The royal city opposite lifted her brow—the proud temple sparkling in glory—the temple of which one stone soon would not be left upon another. 

But James hoped to be spared the awful sight, for he loved his town and people. A solemn foreboding told him that he would have run his race before and won the crown—a happy foreboding, for more than town and people he loved his Lord, and to be with Him forever would be the fulness of joy.

He was about to proceed when a woman came up to him, young and fair, but plunged in grief. She was but seventeen. Hot tears ran down her cheek, and she wrung her hands. Falling at the apostle's feet, she implored him to pity her. Her husband, she said, had been struck down by a wasting fever, and was fast dying. Physicians could not help him, and they were very poor. He must die, alas, and they loved one another so truly!

The apostle looked at her in silence, as though reading her inmost soul. He knew her, for she had been present repeatedly when he had proclaimed the good tidings of grace. But faith had not yet taken root in her heart; she clung to the world, and the love of self was strong. It seemed hard to give up the world in the flower of youth, and harder still to yield self. The old man continued gazing at the young woman silently. She felt the power of his look, and was troubled. For with all tenderness there was in his eye a solemn seriousness, a holy influence over souls which is born of God. At last he spoke—

Woman, do you love him truly?

Yea, Father, with all my heart, replied she tremblingly.

As much as yourself? continued the apostle.

Oh far more! cried she, sobs breaking her voice.

It is well, my daughter; there is a means by which you may save your husband's life. You may think it hard, but remember it is the only means! Go about from house to house, begging charity for him!

Alas, Father, how should alms save him from dying?

It is not alms of money you shall ask for, but alms of time. All the days, or parts of days, which good people for the sake of charity will yield out of their own lives, shall be given to your husband.

The sorrowful wife thought within herself that at all events some people were inclined to charity, and that most valued money far more than time; that, while cleaving to mammon, they wasted many a precious day quite recklessly. She thanked the apostle, and, gathering courage, went her way.

And presently she was seen going about Jerusalem, telling her story from door to door with humble entreaty, speaking of her sick husband whom she loved, and of the servant of God who had directed her to the pity of charitable men. Oh have mercy on me, she cried; let me not ask in vain; give me a day, oh each of you, and God will bless you forever!

But it was quite hopeless. Some laughed at her, requesting to know if she were in her right mind; others pushed her away rudely for even suggesting such a thing; others again thought it a good joke, but preferred not to join in it. Some few, however, seemed ready to admit the possible efficacy of the remedy, but were none the less unwilling to assist in procuring the means. Their own lives were precarious, they said; they had much ado in order to provide for their families, and should not feel justified in sparing any of their precious time. But, strange to say, the very people who were known to waste time most carelessly seemed the least willing to part with even an hour. The poor young wife grew faint at heart, and the cruel taunts she met with from some ...

The young woman came to the door of a rich money-changer. Having learned her trouble he considered awhile, looking at the matter in the light of a possible speculation. The dying man might have money, and no doubt was prepared to pay handsomely for what, after all, was not worth a great sum. How much would he give for a day? a month? a year? Alas, the sorrowing wife must abandon her hopes!—her husband was poor—very poor.

Continuing her way she met a Roman centurion. There was little prospect that he, a heathen, would have a heart for her, the Jewess. But he looked good-natured and she might try.

Indeed the centurion understood her better than she expected, for if he had not faith, he had superstition enough to make him credulous.

My poor child, he said doubtfully, stroking his grizzly beard, I would fain help thee. But you see this life of mine is so uncertain that I know not for a truth whether I have any right to call it mine.. I may be dead tomorrow, and by Jove it would be wicked to grant away what I have not got! Indeed I am not sure whether it would not be robbing Caesar of his due, for my life is sold to him. But I am very sorry for you, nevertheless! Shall I give you some money?

But money was not what she wanted; she said so sadly, and the centurion went his way.

She next accosted a well-to-do tradesman, the owner of a carpenter's shop, employing hundreds of hands. That man was one of the ten lepers whom the Lord had cleansed, and of whom one only turned back to glorify God; but he was not that one. The woman happened to address him with the self-same words with which they had called upon the Son of God—Master, have mercy on us! but he knew no mercy. Turning to the busy scene in his shop, he answered, Woman, look at all this work; I cannot nearly meet demands, and yet you expect me to give you of the little time there is! Nay, you must ask elsewhere.

But she importuned him—O master! for Rabbi Ben-Miriam's sake, who pitied you, pity me and my husband!

'The man had not expected to be thus reminded; he grew red, then pale, but found an answer presently—

Well, as you seem to know that story, your request is doubly unfair. Don't you see how much shorter my life is than that of other people, since I can only be said to have lived from the day I was healed of that leprosy? It is really too much to expect me to shorten a life already shortened. Get thee gone, woman; time is too precious for further talk.

Having left the workshop, the poor wife presently found herself near the temple. Now, filled with grief though she was, she forgot not to cast her mite into the treasury, and going up she met a priest who, having executed his office, was retiring from the house of God.

Thou God of Abraham! he cried, drawing his garments about him as she meekly endeavoured to kiss the hem. Thou God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, listen to this woman! Am I to be the victim of her mad request? It is sorcery!

I am neither mad nor given to sorcery, she urged humbly.

Surely this is sorcery! reiterated the priest, looking at her disdainfully.

Beware, lest you be brought into the synagogue to be stoned!

She next went to the house of a high-born Syrian of princely parentage, who had come to Jerusalem to enjoy his life. And he had enjoyed it, emptying the cup of pleasure to the very dregs. With his appetites blunted, he knew no longer how to waste his time.

She was admitted. Through an inner court, a paradise in itself, where statues of whitest marble gleamed between dark-leaved shrubberies, where fountains played and birds united in chorus, where sweet flowerets steeped the air with fragrance; through pillared halls hung with Tyrian purple and enriched with gold and ivory; over floors of Roman mosaic, and through doors opened and shut by slaves in gorgeous attire—she reached at last to where the lord of all this grandeur was taking his luxurious repose after the exertion of the bath. She found him reclining on a couch with half-closed eyes. An Abyssinian slave, dark as night, was cooling the air about his head with a fan of peacock feathers; while a Greek girl, fair as the day, stroked the soles of his feet with gentle touch. Both these women were beautiful, each after her kind, but that was not what the poor supplicant thought of. Still less did she consider that she herself, holding the mean between Abyssinian and Greek, united in her own person the beauty of both night and day, with her warm complexion and her lustrous eyes—that the charms of these women paled before hers, like stars outshone by the moon.

Woman, said the young man with languid voice, it is true, I care little for life; it is a miserable farce at best. But why should I present you with that which hangs heavy on my own hands? I see no reason. Philanthropy? pooh—it is give and take in the world. Now, what could you give me of pleasure or amusement that I have not tasted to the full? I loathe life; go and leave me to myself!

Crying bitterly, the poor wife left the house of the Syrian.

But hers was a sacred mission; she dared not give up—not yet! There was a certain ruler who lived for his pleasure, and whose liberality invited others to share it. To live, with him, meant to enjoy, and, apart from enjoyment, the world to his understanding was a blank. He had known higher aims. As a youth he had observed all the commandments and had been anxious to inherit life. He was that same young man who came to the Lord saying—All these things have I kept—what lack I yet? But He whom he had called Good Master told him—If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give it to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me! And that was not what the young man had expected, for he had great possessions.

It was a turning-point in his life, and from that moment he ceased believing in an inheritance beyond the grave. He joined the Sadducees, who said that there was no resurrection, and became one of their most zealous followers. The poor young woman, therefore, could not well have asked of one more unlikely to give. The rich man replied contemptuously—How foolish and surpassingly arrogant! I have but this one life, and do you expect me to be lavish of it to any chance comer. Know that a day of my existence could not be paid for with all the gold of Ophir! You have mistaken me, my pretty child; you had better apply to the Pharisees.

For two full days she continued begging from house to house, well-nigh exhausting the streets of Jerusalem, but all she obtained was unkindly speeches, if not worse.

At the close of the second day she yielded to despair, falling on the ground by the gate of Damascus, tired to death and undone with grief. There she lay with a dull sense of misery. But suddenly the well of her tears was dried, a smile like a gleam of sunshine lighting up her grief-worn face. Fatigue was nothing now; she rose quickly and went to where she knew she would find the apostle.

Well, my daughter, and how have you sped? asked he, with loving sympathy.

Alas, Father, men are void of pity. The world is evil, and its sinful desires are for self only.

You say truly. Compassion is with God alone.

Yes, Father, and to Him therefore will I go. No one will give me as much as a single day, and many days are needed to restore my husband to my love. I well-nigh despaired. But suddenly I remembered that I had a life—and to judge from my great youth, a long life—before me. O man of God! tell me, may I not give of mine own abundance what hard-hearted men are not willing to make up between them? My husband is half my life to me; let me give him, then, the half of my life. Let us live together and die together. Or, if it must be, let him have the whole; I am willing to die, so that he may live.

Thus she entreated, the tears flowing down gently over her love-lit face. But the apostle touched her head with a hand of blessing, and said, deeply moved—

Daughter, be of good cheer; thou hast found grace in the sight of God. Depart in peace; thy husband is given thee, and ye shall live together!

Letters from Hell, L. W. J. S., Richard Bentley & Son, London, 1889