The Lily Of Israel By The Abbe Gerbet. Part 6.

CHAPTER IV. THE CHOICE


MARY had attained her fifteenth year. This b was the age when the consecrated virgins left the house of the Lord for their future homes. Their vows ended now, for among the Hebrews marriage was of rigorous obligation.

If Anne and Joachim had been alive, both would have come to present to their daughter the young man whom they had selected for her out of their own family or from their neighborhood. They would have presided at the nuptial festivals, always long, and celebrated with the splendor permitted by the fortune and rank of the affianced. The father would have pronounced the blessings of the Patriarchs upon the happy couple. The mother, covering the bride with a veil embroidered with her own hands, would have explained to her in what manner a woman is called to spread happiness and joy around the days of her husband. The touching example of Anne's beautiful and meek character would have given holy authority to her voice. But that dear voice Mary was destined never to hear again. The counsel which now failed her upon earth was  henceforth to proceed from the Most High, from the Giver of all good things. Being an orphan, and no relative having claimed her guardianship (to the great regret of Elizabeth and Zachary, both were kept by illness from the Holy City), the duty of settling her in life devolved upon the High Priest. Joiada then being in office, he called a Council—and according to the customs of those days it was made known to the young men seeking a wife that one of the maids of the Temple had just reached the age of marriage, and the time was appointed when they should come to solicit her hand.

The report of Mary's extraordinary beauty, her sweetness, her purity, and her maidenly virtues had been circulated throughout the city, for no one could meet the daughter of Anne and Joachim without carrying away an impression of intense respect and affection. Every mother was anxious to obtain her for her son, and the young men, in turn, ardently sought her for a wife. On the day set by Joiada and the Council a number of these repaired to the Temple.

Now Mary, notwithstanding the vow of virginity which she had made, had not attempted to release herself from the law common to all. Perhaps she knew that her opposition would not be listened to. It was more likely, however, that she felt assured of God's care and protection, for she said nothing. Only, before the time, she passed three days and three nights in prayer, and when the assembly opened in which her fate was to be decided she asked the Council to propound a certain question to each of those who would claim her hand. A simple enough question, but she promised to wed the one who could answer it.

The question appeared insignificant. Yet the acquiescence of the Council to her request was sufficient to calm her fears.

The crowd obstructed the approaches and the entrance of the Temple. The council chamber was given over to the young men who sought the daughter of Joachim in marriage, while their mothers, friends, and relatives were also present to pay them honor, and to show the interest which they took in the success of their wishes.

One, the first to ask for Mary's hand, was called Mahasias, son of Sadoch. He said :

"I have fertile lands, I own rich pastures and fine flocks in the plains of Jericho. I have many servants. I ask the hand of Mary, daughter of Joachim and Anne, in marriage."

Another was called Heli, the son of Nadab:

"My father traded over seas with Tyre and Sidon," he said. "He has left me, as an inheritance, one hundred talents of gold, fifty talents of silver, and his house at Jerusalem, filled with goods of value."

Thus each in turn boasted of his riches and of his qualifications. But Mary, standing concealed beneath her veil amid a group of the Temple virgins,did not even appear to hear them. With hands clasped on her breast she was silently praying.

When all had finished the enumeration of the^r wealth and fitness, the young girl advanced rather timidly, saluted the High Priest with deep reverence to remind him of his promise, and then returned again to her young companions, who shielded her from observation.

Joiada then called Mahasias.

"Mahasias, son of Sadoch," he said, gravely, "tell us what, in your estimation, is the most beautiful ornament of woman? Do not hesitate to reply, and may the God of our fathers inspire you."

Mahasias was astonished at this unexpected question. He thought deeply—then, glancing toward Mary, he replied:

"The most beautiful ornament of a woman is her veil, which, concealing her beauty, allows one to imagine it."

The High Priest looked at Mary. She ^as motionless. Shaking his head, he ordered Heli to come forward, putting to him the same question.

"Necklaces of rubies," declared the wealthy youth, with calm assurance. "Earrings of the finest emeralds of Egypt—such jewels as my mother reserves for the wife of her son."

Mary remained silent.

A third replied: "It is the prudence and wisdom of her mind."

Others gave definitions which proved most clearly their temperaments, but Mary's head was bent, her beautiful face covered, and neither by sign nor by movement did she signify that their answers were pleasing to her. Then came one named Agabus. He had seen Mary in the Temple; he had been impressed by the beauty and purity which had seemed to emanate from every movement. Her chaste and maidenly presence had elevated his soul above the consideration of earthly things.

So, turning his eyes toward her, he answered the question put to him.

"The most beautiful ornament of a woman," he said, in a voice of deep feeling, "is, in my opinion, her modesty."

All eyes were turned toward Mary. At last! Surely Agabus had read her mind! Through her veil the young girl turned her eyes upon him, and in a gentle whisper he heard:

'' Good thoughts proceed from the Lord! May He still further enlighten your understanding!"

That was all. She did not manifest her approbation—and the High Priest was astonished. Agabus had, in reality, comprehended the meaning of the question better than any of the others, but he, too, was dismissed, to his great and bitter disappointment. Now the young men who had presented themselves were wealthy and handsome, and many of them held an elevated rank in Jerusalem. The High Priest and Council sent them away regretfully and all withdrew dissatisfied and downcast. The Council murmured.

"This young girl abuses the privilege which has been granted her."

But the High Priest knew and loved Mary. He was certain that there was some deep and sacred meaning behind the promise she had given to accept for her husband the man who would answer her question. Because of this he proposed to dissolve the assembly until the following month, for most of the young men were engaged in the harvesting. The Council determined to await their return, and the sitting was about to adjourn when a man who had indeed passed his youth, and, by his attire, seemed to belong to the respected, but struggling class, of artisans, came through the crowd, and asked leave to present himself as the husband of the young Virgin.

The priests looked at one another doubtfully.

They did not know if it were right to grant this request. Mary was descended from the royal race. Her relatives, true, had left her very little wealth, but she was, by her virtue and beauty, the glory and honor of the Temple in which she had been educated. Could they permit this stranger, obscure, yes, almost elderly, for his abundant dark hair was streaked with gray—could they permit him to propose himself as a suitor for the hand of one so eagerly sought by others far his superiors in station and wealth?

"Who are you?" asked Joiada, in a cold voice.

"I am Joseph, the son of Jacob, the son of Mathan, of the house of David" he answered without hesitation and with a calm dignity that insured instant respect. "But my house has fallen into obscurity, and from my youth I have lived by the labor of my hands. I am poor—but I hope, with the help of God, to provide for her who shall entrust her fate to me."

Again the High Priest and Council exchanged doubtful glances. They made no answer—they were dissatisfied and irresolute. But, quite suddenly, from behind the silken veil came the voice of the young girl herself, uttering the question which was to determine her decision.

"O Joseph, son of David, what, in your opinion, is the most beautiful ornament of woman?"

A long, long silence succeeded.

All eyes were turned upon this man, all eyes judged him, considered him. His face was handsome, dignified, calm, but there were wrinkles upon his forehead that told of toil and anxiety; his hair, once coal-dark, was almost white above the temples and ears; silvery threads were visible in his thick dark beard. But there was a serenity in those calm features that no youth could bestow; the deep lines in his forehead, while indicating that the troubles of life were not unknown, indicated also that he had had the fortitude to bear them; his eyes were serene and intelligent, and clear with the beauty of a well-spent existence. One could not look at him save with esteem and respect.

Mary's question vibrated in the air, as the music of a harp may be heard in its echoes. The man drew his form erect, stood listening an instant, and then answered, firmly and gently.

"The most beautiful ornament of a woman is her inviolate and pure virginity."

Mary stepped forward.

"Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Mathan," she said, "I know by your reply that you are the one that God has sent me. I accept you for my husband, and I will be your affectionate and obedient wife."

"Let God be praised!" said Joseph. He looked at her with tenderness, contemplating the young girl who had given herself to him in such an extraordinary manner, because he had understood the secret meaning of her words.

Yet how could a man, a strict observer and follower of the Jewish Law, conceive so lofty an idea of the sublime dignity of this holy Virgin? Oh, it is because the chosen ones of the Lord exist at all times and in all conditions—and this man, poor in the goods of the world, tried by suffering, had been ennobled, dignified, illumined by the Light, which, at a later period was to enlighten every man that cometh into this world. (1 John i, 9.) The Messias whose father and guardian he was to become in the sight of man, had instructed his mind, as the sun, before rising on the horizon, gilds with its rays the ridges of the loftiest mountain.

But the world judges by appearances. With dismay and even grief the High Priest and the members of the Council heard Mary's acceptance of this poor man for her life-companion. They did not know that the angels were transported with joy, both in heaven and on earth; they did not know that it was Joseph, the only man among all the Hebrew race, whose purity of heart and nobility and courage, had rendered him worthy of one who was to be the Queen of angels. They did not know this, and they tried, by every possible and plausible argument, to dissuade her from a decision which they felt was most unwise. Mary, however, fortified by the satisfaction of conscience which Joseph's answer had meant to her, remained immovable.

"For me the will of heaven has been made manifest in the word of Joseph," she answered, steadily.

There was no gainsaying this. Joiada felt her quiet strength and said no more. The espousal ceremonies were immediately performed. One of the treasurers brought Joseph the ring of purest gold which was kept for this ceremony, and Joseph, approaching Mary, placed it on her finger.

"Mary, daughter of Joachim and Anne," he said, "by this ring you are my wife according to the Law of Moses."

"Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Mathan," replied Mary, "by this ring which I receive, I am your wife before Israel."

Some of the young girls who had been Mary's companions, brought her the presents they had prepared for this festival. One gave her a distaff, covered with the flax of Mizraim; another a very fine sieve to sift the flour; another, sandals which she had splendidly ornamented, expecting to see Mary exalted, as was Queen Esther, to the rank to which her beauty entitled her. They were not pleased with Mary's choice, and since all loved her, their tears could not be controlled, but ran down their cheeks even while they embraced her. Mary's countenance, on the contrary, radiated peace and joy.

"The riches and happiness of this world consist in doing the will of God," she said.

Anna the Prophetess came last, offering her the gift of a purple girdle which she had embroidered with her own hands, and on which were inscribed the words: "And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root." (Isaias xi, 1.) The Virgin smiled and kissed her tenderly, but said no word.

A few days later the solemn nuptials took place, and thus it was that Mary became the wife of Joseph, the most upright of men.