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   Chapter 5 RUTH’S BURIAL

The Scapegoat By Sir Hall Caine Characters: 11687

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06


The people of Tetuan were not melted towards Israel by the depth of his sorrow and the breadth of shadow that lay upon him. By noon of the day following the night of Ruth's death, Israel knew that he was to be left alone. It was a rule of the Mellah that on notice being given of a death in their quarter, the clerk of the synagogue should publish it at the first service thereafter, in order that a body of men, called the Hebra Kadisha of Kabranim, the Holy Society of Buriers, might straightway make arrangements for burial. Early prayers had been held in the synagogue at eight o'clock that morning, and no one had yet come near to Israel's house. The men of the Hebra were going about their ordinary occupations. They knew nothing of Ruth's death by official announcement. The clerk had not published it. Israel remembered with bitterness that notice of it had not been sent. Nevertheless, the fact was known throughout Tetuan. There was not a water-carrier in the market-place but had taken it to each house he called at, and passed it to every man he met. Little groups of idle Jewish women had been many hours congregated in the streets outside, talking of it in whispers and looking up at the darkened windows with awe. But the synagogue knew nothing of it. Israel had omitted the customary ceremony, and in that omission lay the advantage of his enemies. He must humble himself and send to them. Until he did so they would leave him alone.

Israel did not send. Never once since the birth of Naomi had he crossed the threshold of the synagogue. He would not cross it now, whether in body or in spirit. But he was still a Jew, with Jewish customs, if he had lost the Jewish faith, and it was one of the customs of the Jews that a body should be buried within twenty-four hours, at farthest, from the time of death. He must do something immediately. Some help must be summoned. What help could it be?

It was useless to think of the Muslimeen. No believer would lend a hand to dig a grave for an unbeliever, or to make apparel for his dead. It was just as idle to think of the Jews. If the synagogue knew nothing of this burial, no Jew in the Mellah would be found so poor that he would have need to know more. And of Christians of any sort or condition there were none in all Tetuan.

The gall of Israel's heart rose to his throat. Was he to be left alone with his dead wife? Did his enemies wish to see him howk out her grave with his own hands? Or did they expect him to come to them with bowed forehead and bended knee? Either way their reckoning was a mistake. They might leave him terribly and awfully alone-alone in his hour of mourning even as they had left him alone in his hour of rejoicing, when he had married the dear soul who was dead. But his strength and energy they should not crush: his vital and intellectual force they should not wither away. Only one thing they could do to touch him-they could shrivel up his last impulse of sweet human sympathy. They were doing it now.

When Israel had put matters to himself so, he despatched a message to the Governor at the Kasbah, and received, in answer, six State prisoners, fettered in pairs, under the guard of two soldiers.

The burial took place within the limit of twenty-four hours prescribed by Jewish custom. It was twilight when the body was brought down from the upper room to the patio. There stood the coffin on a trestle that had been raised for it on chairs standing back to back. And there, too, sat Israel, with Naomi and little black Ali beside him.

Israel's manner was composed; his face was as firm as a rock, and his dress was more costly than Tetuan had ever seen him wear before. Everything that related to the burial he had managed himself, down to the least or poorest detail. But there was nothing poor about it in the larger sense. Israel was a rich man now, and he set no value on his riches except to subdue the fate that had first beaten him down and to abash the enemies who still menaced him. Nothing was lacking that money could buy in Tetuan to make this burial an imposing ceremony. Only one thing it wanted-it wanted mourners, and it had but one.

Unlike her father, little Naomi was visibly excited. She ran to and fro, clutched at Israel's clothes and seemed to look into his face, clasped the hand of little Ali and held it long as if in fear. Whether she knew what work was afoot, and, if she knew it, by what channel of soul or sense she learnt it, no man can say. That she was conscious of the presence of many strangers is certain, and when the men from the Kasbah brought the roll of white linen down the stairway, with the two black women clinging to it, kissing its fringe and wailing over it, she broke away from Israel and rushed in among them with a startled cry, and her little white arms upraised. But whatever her impulse, there was no need to check her. The moment she had touched her mother she crept back in dread to her father's side.

"God be gracious to my father, look at that," whispered Fatimah.

"My child, my poor child," said Israel, "is there but one thing in life that speaks to you? And is that death? Oh, little one, little one!"

It was a strange procession which then passed out of the patio. Four of the prisoners carried the coffin on their shoulders, walking in pairs according to their fetters. They were gaunt and bony creatures. Hunger had wasted their sallow cheeks, and the air of noisome dungeons had sunken their rheumy eyes. Their clothes were soiled rags, and over them, and concealing them down to their waists and yet lower, hung the deep, rich, velvet pall, with its long silk fringes. In front walked the two remaining prisoners, each bearing a great plume in his left hand-the right arm, as well as the right leg, being chained. On either side was a soldier, carryin

g a lighted lantern, which burnt small and feeble in the twilight, and last of all came Israel himself, unsupported and alone. Thus they passed through the little crowd of idlers that had congregated at the door, through the streets of the Mellah and out into the marketplace, and up the narrow lane that leads to the chief town gate.

There is something in the very nature of power that demands homage, and the people of Tetuan could not deny it to Israel. As the procession went through the town they cleared a way for it, and they were silent until it had gone. Within the gate of the Mellah, a shocket was killing fowls and taking his tribute of copper coins, but he stopped his work and fell back as the procession approached. A blind beggar crouching at the other side of the gate was reciting passages of the Koran, and two Arabs close at his elbow were wrangling over a game at draughts which they were playing by the light of a flare, but both curses and Koran ceased as the procession passed under the arch. In the market-place a Soosi juggler was performing before a throng of laughing people, and a story-teller was shrieking to the twang of his ginbri; but the audience of the juggler broke up as the procession appeared, and the ginbri of the storyteller was no more heard. The hammering in the shops of the gunsmiths was stopped, and the tinkling of the bells of the water-carriers was silenced. Mules bringing wood from the country were dragged out of the path, and the town asses, with their panniers full of street-filth, were drawn up by the wall. From the market-place and out of the shops, out of the houses and out of the mosque itself, the people came trooping in crowds, and they made a long close line on either side of the course which the procession must take. And through this avenue of onlookers the strange company made its way-the two prisoners bearing the plumes, the four others bearing the coffin, the two soldiers carrying the lanterns, and Israel last of all, unsupported and alone. Nothing was heard in the silence of the people but the tramp of the feet of the six men, and the clank of their chains.

The light of the lanterns was on the faces of some of them, and every one knew them for what they were. It was on the face of Israel also, yet he did not flinch. His head was held steadily upward; he looked neither to the right nor to the left, but strode firmly along.

The Jewish cemetery was outside the town walls, and before the procession came to it the darkness had closed in. Its flat white tombstones, all pointing toward Jerusalem, lay in the gloom like a flock of sheep asleep among the grass. It had no gate but a gap in the fence, and no fence but a hedge of the prickly pear and the aloe.

Israel had opened a grave for Ruth beside the grave of the old rabbi her father. He had asked no man's permission to do so, but if no one had helped at that day's business, neither had any one dared to hinder. And when the coffin was set down by the grave-side no ceremony did Israel forget and none did he omit. He repeated the Kaddesh, and cut the notch in his kaftan; he took from his breast the little linen bag of the white earth of the land of promise and laid it under the head; he locked a padlock and flung away the key. Last of all, when the body had been taken out of the coffin and lowered to its long home, he stepped in after it, and called on one of the soldiers to lend him a lantern. And then, kneeling at the foot of his dead wife, he touched her with both his hands, and spoke these words in a clear, firm voice, looking down at her where she lay in the veil that she had used to wear in the synagogue, and speaking to her as though she heard: "Ruth, my wife, my dearest, for the cruel wrong which I did you long ago when I suffered you to marry me, being a man such as I was, under the ban of my people, forgive me now, my beloved, and ask God to forgive me also."

The dark cemetery, the six prisoners in their clanking irons, the two soldiers with their lanterns the open grave, and this strong-hearted man kneeling within it, that he might do his last duty, according to the custom of his race and faith, to her whom he had wronged and should meet no more until the resurrection itself reunited them! The traffic of the streets had begun again by this time, and between the words which Israel had spoken the low hum of many voices had come over the dark town walls.

The six prisoners went back to the Kasbah with joyful hearts, for each carried with him a paper which procured his freedom on the day following. But Israel returned to his home with a soured and darkened mind. As he had plucked his last handful of the grass, and flung it over his shoulder, saying, "They shall spring in the cities as the grass in the earth," he had asked himself what it mattered to him though all the world were peopled, now that she, who had been all the world to him, was dead. God had left him as a lonely pilgrim in a dreary desert. Only one glimpse of human affection had he known as a man, and here it was taken from him for ever.

And when he remembered Naomi, he quarrelled with God again. She was a helpless exile among men, a creature banished from all human intercourse, a living soul locked in a tabernacle of flesh. Was it a good God who had taken the mother from such a child-the child from such a mother? Israel was heart-smitten, and his soul blasphemed. It was not God but the devil that ruled the world. It was not justice but evil that governed it.

Thus did this outcast man rebel against God, thinking of the child's loss and of his own; but nevertheless by the child itself he was yet to be saved from the devil's snare, and the ways wherein this sweet flower, fresh from God's hand, wrought upon his heart to redeem it were very strange and beautiful.

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