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   Chapter 2 THE BIRTH OF NAOMI

The Scapegoat By Sir Hall Caine Characters: 17373

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06


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 k

aftan, 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."

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