The chief merchant of Ascalon stood in the guest-chamber of his house.
Although it was a late winter day the old man was clad in the free white garments of a midsummer afternoon, for to the sorrow of Philistia the cold season of the year sixty-nine had been warm, wet and miasmic. An old woman entering presently glanced at the closed windows of the apartment when she noted the flushed face of the merchant but she made no movement to have them opened. More than the warmth of the day was engaging the attention of the grave old man, and the woman, by dress and manner of equal rank with him, stood aside until he could give her a moment.
His porter bowed at his side.
"The servants of Philip of Tyre are without," he said. "Shall they enter?"
"They have come for the furnishings," Costobarus answered. "Take thou all the household but Momus and Hiram, and dismantle the rooms for them. Begin in the library; then the sleeping-rooms; this chamber next; the kitchen last of all. Send Hiram to the stables to except three good camels from the herd for our use. Let Momus look to the baggage. Where is Keturah?"
A woman servant hastening after a line of men bearing a great divan, picking up the draperies and pillows that had dropped, stopped and salaamed to her master.
"Is our apparel ready?" he asked.
"Prepared, master," was the response.
"Then send hither–" But at that moment a man-servant dressed in the garb of a physician hastened into the chamber. Without awaiting the notice of his master he hurried up and whispered in his ear. Costobarus' face grew instantly grave.
"How near?" he asked anxiously.
"In the next house–but a moment since. The household hath fled," was the low answer.
"Haste, haste!" Costobarus cried to the rush of servants about him. "Lose no time. We must be gone from this place before mid-afternoon. Laodice! Where is Laodice?" he inquired.
Then his wife who had stood aside spoke.
"She is not yet prepared," she explained unreadily. "She needs a frieze cloak–"
Costobarus broke in by beckoning his wife to one side, where the servants could not hear him say compassionately,
"Let there be no delay for small things, Hannah. Let us haste, for Laodice is going on the Lord's business."
"A matter of a day only," Hannah urged. "A delay that is further necessary, for Aquila's horse is lame."
The old man shook his head and looked away to see a man-servant stagger out under a load of splendid carpets. The old woman came close.
"The wayside is ambushed and the wilderness is patrolled with danger, Costobarus," she said. "Of a certainty you will not take Laodice out into a country perilous for caravans and armies!"
"These very perils are the signs of the call of the hour," he maintained. "She dare not fail to respond. The Deliverer cometh; every prophecy is fulfilled. Rather rejoice that you have prepared your daughter for this great use. Be glad that you have borne her."
But in Hannah's face wavered signs of another interpretation of these things. She broke in on him without the patience to wait until he had completed his sentence.
"Are they prophecies of hope which are fulfilled, or the words of the prophet of despair?" she insisted. "What saith Daniel of this hour? Did he not name it the abomination of desolation? Said he not that the city and the sanctuary should be destroyed, that there should be a flood and that unto the end of the war desolations shall be determined? Desolations, Costobarus! And Laodice is but a child and delicately reared!"