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Following Behind

Source: Hebrew Heroes

As he quitted that place of burial, which he had little expected to
leave alive, Lycidas felt like one under an enchanter's spell. Joy at
almost unhoped-for escape from a violent death was not the emotion
uppermost in his mind, and it became the less so with every step which
the Athenian took from the olive-grove. Strange as the feeling
appeared even to himself, the young poet could almost have wished the
whole scene acted over again, notwithstanding the painfully prominent
part which he had had to play in it. Lycidas would not have been
unwilling to have heard again the fierce cries and execrations, and to
have seen once more the flashing weapons around him, for the sake of
also hearing the soft appeal, "Have mercy, spare him!" and to have had
another glimpse of Zarah's form and face, as, with a halo of moonlight
and loveliness around her, she dropped her tribute of living flowers
into the grave of the dead.

"These Hebrew women are not as the women of earth, but beings that
belong to a higher sphere," thought Lycidas, as he pursued his way
towards the city. "That aged matron has all the majesty of a Juno, and
the maiden is fair as--nay, to which of the deities of Olympus could I
compare one so tender and so pure! Venus! the idea were
profanation--chaste Dian with her merciless arrows--Pallas, terrible to
her enemies? no! Strange that it should seem an insult to the women to
compare her to the goddess!"

Lycidas gazed upwards at the exquisite blue of that Eastern sky, and
around him at the fair landscape of hills and valleys calmly sleeping
in moonlight. A thrilling sense of beauty pervaded his soul.

"Oh, holy and beneficent Nature," he murmured, "hast thou no voice to
explain to men through thy visible glories the mysteries of the
invisible! Dost thou not even now whisper to my soul, 'purity and
goodness are the attributes of Divinity, for they are stamped upon the
works of creation; and so must purity and goodness be the badge of the
Divinity's true worshippers on earth!' There is a spirit stirring
within the breast that echoes this voice of Nature, that repeats,
'purity and goodness, not power and might, give the highest dignity to
mortal or immortal!' But if it be so, if my hand have touched the
mighty veil which shrouds the truth from man's profane gaze, if I have
a glimpse of the sacred mystery beyond, how far from that truth, in
what a mist of error must all the nations of earth be wandering now!"
Lycidas unconsciously slackened his steps, and raised his hand to his
brow. "Perhaps not all," he reflected; "from what I hear it appears
that this Hebrew nation, this handful of conquered people groaning in
bondage, hold themselves to be the sole guardians of a faith which is
lofty, soul-ennobling, and pure. They deem themselves to be as a
beacon on a hill set on high, throughout ages past, to show a dark
world that there is still light, and a light which shall yet overspread
the earth as the waters cover the sea; those were the words of
Hadassah. And she spake also of One who should come, One looked for by
the Jews, who shall bring judgment unto the Gentiles. Do the Hebrews
hope for the advent of a Deity upon earth, or only that of a prophet?
I would that I could see Hadassah again; and I will see her--I will
never give up the search for one who can guide unto knowledge; come
what may, I will look upon her and on that beauteous maiden again!"

Absorbed as he was by such thoughts, there is little wonder that the
young Athenian missed his way, and that he unconsciously wandered in a
direction different from that which he had intended to take. The
moonlight also failed him, clouds had arisen, and only now and then a
fitful gleam fell on his path. Lycidas became at last uncertain even
as to the direction in which Jerusalem lay. The young Athenian was
weary, less from physical fatigue than from the effects of strong
excitement upon a sensitive frame. Sometimes he fancied now that he
heard a stealthy step behind him, and stopped to listen, then felt
assured that his senses must have deceived him, and went on his way,
groping through the darkness. What a strange episode in his existence
that night appeared to the Greek--scarcely a mere episode, for it
seemed to him that it absorbed into itself all the true poetry of his
life as regarded the past, and gave him new aspirations and hopes as
regarded the future. To Lycidas the remembrance of his poetical
triumph in the Olympic arena, the plaudits which had then filled his
soul with ecstatic delight, was little more than to a man is the
recollection of the toys which amused his childhood. The Greek had
been brought face to face with life's grand realities, and what had
strongly excited his ambition once, appeared to him now as shadows that
pass away.

"And yet," mused the young poet, "I would fain once more win the leafy
crown, that I might lay it at Zarah's feet. But what would such a
trophy of earthly distinction be to her? not worth one of the flowers,
hallowed by her touch, which she cast into the martyrs' grave! Ha!
again! I fancied that I heard a rustle of garments behind me! How
powerful is the imagination, that mirage of the mind, that makes us
fancy the existence of things that are not!"

Lycidas had now reached a part of the road which bordered an abrupt
descent to the left, the hill along whose side the path wound appearing
to have been scarped in this place, probably to leave wider space for
some vine-clad terrace below. Lights were gleaming in the far
distance, marking the position of the city in which the guests of
Antiochus, preceded by torch-bearers, were wending their way back to
their several homes. Sounds of wild mirth, from those reeling back
from the revels, were faintly borne on the night breeze from the
distant streets.

Lycidas, however, when he reached the point whence the lights were
visible, was not left a moment either to gaze or to listen.

"Dog of a Gentile--I have you!" hissed a voice from behind; and Lycidas
was instantly engaged in a life or death hand-to-hand struggle with
Abishai the Jew, who, as soon as he could steal away from his
companions at the grave, had followed and dogged the steps of the
Greek. It was almost a hopeless struggle for the young Athenian; his
enemy surpassed him in strength of muscle and weight of body, wore a
dagger, and was determined to use it, though some wild sense of honour
had prevented Abishai from stabbing the unconscious youth without
warning, when he stole upon him from behind. But the love of life is
strong, and desperation gives almost supernatural power. Lycidas felt
the keen blade strike him once and again, he felt his blood gushing
warm from the wounds, he caught the arm uplifted to smite, with
despair's fierce energy he endeavoured to wrench the murderous weapon
away. The two men went wrestling, struggling, straining each sinew to
the utmost, drawing nearer, inch by inch, to the brink of the steep
descent. Abishai dropped his dagger in the struggle, and could not
stoop to attempt to recover it in the darkness, but he grasped with his
sinewy hand the gasping youth by the locks, and, with a gigantic
effort, hurled him over the edge.

With dilating eyeballs and a look of fierce triumph Abishai leant over
the brink, trying to distinguish through the deepening gloom the
lifeless form of his victim.

"I have silenced the Gentile once and for ever!" cried the fierce
Hebrew through his clenched teeth. "I said not 'Content' when the
question was put, but I say it now!" He drew back from the edge, wiped
the moisture from his heated brow, and left a red stain upon it.

"Ere I go to rest," said the stern Jew, "I will let Hadassah know that
my arm has achieved that safety for her and our brave companions which
her wild folly would have sacrificed. I marvel that Judas, son of
Mattathias, a bold man, and deemed a wise one, should have let himself
be swayed from his purpose by the idle words of a woman. But I trow,"
added Abishai with a grim smile, "that a glance from Zarah went further
with him than all the pleadings of Hadassah. It is said amongst us,
their kinsmen, that these twain shall be made one; but this is no time
for marrying and giving in marriage, when the unclean swine is
sacrificed on God's altar, and the shadow of the idol darkens the
Temple, and the sons of Abraham are given but the alternative to defile
themselves or to die. The day of vengeance is at hand! may all the
enemies of Judah perish as that poor wretch has perished this night!"

Abishai sought for his dagger, and found it; he then left the scene of
his act of ruthless cruelty, with a conscience less troubled by so dark
a deed than it would have been had he rubbed corn between his hands on
the Sabbath, or neglected one of the washings prescribed by the
traditions of the elders.

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