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The Maiden's Trial






Source: Hebrew Heroes

Before this gorgeous assembly--before this terrible king--stood,
surrounded by guards, a trembling, shrinking girl, wrapping closer and
closer her linen veil around her slight form and drooping head.

"Tear off her veil!" said the king.

The command was instantly obeyed, and, like the painful glare of
noonday to one brought suddenly out of darkness, the terrible splendour
of the scene before her flashed upon Zarah. Her exquisite beauty, as
her face now flushed crimson with shame at having to meet, without the
protection of a veil, so many gazing eyes, then turned pale from
overwhelming fear, caused an involuntary murmur of admiration to burst
from the throng.

"No Herculean task to bend this willow wand," observed Antiochus, even
his hard stern countenance relaxing into a smile. "Bring her nearer."
The guards obeyed. Zarah approached the king, but with timid,
faltering steps; how different from the firm tread with which a captive
Maccabeus would have drawn nigh to the oppressor who might slay but
never subdue him!

"There is the altar of Jupiter Olympus--that of Venus would have been
more appropriate to so fair a votary," said Antiochus, with an oath;
"but it little matters which deity receives the homage, so that it be
duly paid. Maiden, throw some grains of yon incense into the flame,
bend the knee in worship, and I promise you," the king added, with a
laugh, "a gay house and a gallant husband, pearls and goodly array, and
all else that a young maid's heart can desire."

Zarah did not stir; she did not appear to have even understood or heard
the words of the king, only her lips were moving in agonized prayer.

Antiochus repeated more sternly his command to offer the incense.

"Oh, my God, help me; let me not be tried beyond what I can bear!" was
the silent ejaculation which rose from the heart of the terror-stricken
girl, as she slightly shook her bended head as her only reply.

"What! silent still," cried Antiochus, with displeasure. "Know you
not, young mute, that we have workers of miracles here,"--he pointed to
some black African slaves who performed the office of executioners;
"these are skilful to bring sounds, and those some of the shrillest,
from lips the most closely sealed."

In terror Zarah raised her dark eyes and looked wildly around her, in
the vain hope of seeing some one, perhaps Lycidas himself, from whom
she might receive protection or pity. But there was not a single
countenance amidst the gay throng of courtiers that promised anything
but cold indifference to, if not cruel amusement in her sufferings or
her degradation; unless, perhaps, that of Pollux formed an exception.
Zarah's anxious gaze rested for a moment on his face with an imploring
look of entreaty, which might have touched a harder heart than his.

"I brook no more idle delay!" cried Antiochus; "as you love your life,
do sacrifice at once to my god."

"I cannot--I dare not!" exclaimed the young maid. Faint as was her
utterance of the words, they were heard distinctly, so great was the
silence which prevailed through the assembly in that marble hall.

The answer surprised Antiochus and his courtiers.

"Ha! there is some resistance in the willow-wand then, after all!"
cried the king, half amused and half angry. "I warrant me tough boughs
grow on the tree from which that slender twig has sprung. Tell me,
fair rebel," he continued, "your name and lineage, and the place of
your birth."

Zarah had firmly resolved that, come what might, she would betray no
friend; above all, that she would never draw down the fire of
persecution upon the house of Hadassah. In the midst of all the misery
which she was enduring from personal fear, Zarah forgot not this
resolution.

"My name is Zarah; I was born in Bethsura; my father was called Abner,"
faltered forth the young maid.

Pollux involuntarily started and gasped, as if every word had been a
live coal dropped upon his bare breast. It was well for him then that
all eyes, even those of Lysimachus, were fixed at that moment on Zarah.

"Is your father living?" inquired the king, who, in the common name of
Abner, did not recognize the almost forgotten one previously borne by a
favourite.

"I know not," was the reply.

"Was he not with you at the rebellious meeting?" asked Antiochus
Epiphanes.

"No; I went with my uncle, who was slain: he was my only companion
thither," said the trembling maiden, thankful to be able with truth to
say what would bring no person into peril.

There was a brief pause, to Zarah inexpressibly awful; then Antiochus
Epiphanes, he who had looked on the dying agonies of Solomona and her
sons, said in his stern voice of command, "I am not wont to bid thrice,
and woe to those who presume to neglect my bidding. Throw incense on
that fire, or the consequences be upon your own head. Others have
experienced ere this what it is to brave my displeasure and disobey my
command."

Bewildered and terrified, Zarah suffered, as if scarcely conscious of
the import of the act, a few grains of incense to be put into her hand,
then, recovering her self-possession, she flung them from her with a
look of aversion and horror.

"Ha! is it so?" thundered Antiochus; "if the incense go not into the
fire, the hand that held it shall go. Executioners, do your work!"

Four of the fierce black slaves approached the young Hebrew maiden.
She clasped her hands, and shrieked out, "Father, save me!" It was no
mortal to whom she addressed that wild cry for help.

But the cry was answered by a mortal. Pollux, as if moved by an
irresistible impulse, sprang forward, by a gesture of his hand arrested
the movements of the executioners, and bent his knee before Epiphanes.

"The mighty king," he began, with a great effort to appear indifferent
and at his ease; "the mighty king has spoken of magicians who have
skill to force out sounds from lips that are dumb. I dispute not the
power of yonder black magi, but I should deem one their superior in the
mysterious art who could bring songs rather than shrieks from a Hebrew;
who could subdue the proud will rather than torture the body. Oh,
illustrious monarch of the world, let me but for twenty-four hours try
my potent spells upon this young rebel, and I will answer for it with
my head that, before the twenty-four hours be past, she shall gladly
and cheerfully do sacrifice to any god in Olympus, feast on swine's
flesh, dance as a Bacchante, or drink wine, like Belshazzar of old, out
of the vessels of the Temple. Try my powers, O king, and according to
my failure or success, so be the maiden's fate and mine!"

Antiochus hesitated; with a look of keen suspicion he regarded the
kneeling courtier. Zarah watched the king's countenance with
breathless anxiety--a respite even of twenty-four hours seemed to the
poor captive so priceless a boon. Intense was her relief when she
heard the tyrant's reply to Pollux:--

"Twenty-four hours' delay you have asked, and I grant. It were a
nobler triumph to make a proselyte than to slay a victim. I myself, as
you well know, Pollux," continued the tyrant, with sarcastic emphasis,
"won such a triumph myself. Take yonder obstinate Jewess, and work
upon her your spells, whatever they may be; but hear my final
decision," the king raised his hand and uttered a deep oath: "if
to-morrow you have failed in doing what you now undertake to perform,
if the girl be obdurate still, the moment when she refuses to do
sacrifice shall be your last upon earth--she shall go to the furnace,
and her protector to the block."

And then, with an imperious gesture of command, Antiochus dismissed the
assembly.





Next: A Breathing Space

Previous: The Court Of Antiochus



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