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The Midnight Burial






Source: Hebrew Heroes

The scene which he had witnessed had left the mind of Lycidas in an
excited and feverish state. The cooling breeze which whispered amongst
the leaves of the olives, and the solitude of the secluded place where
Pollux had left him, were refreshing to the young Greek's spirit. He
threw himself on the grass beneath one of the trees, leant against its
trunk, and gazed upwards at the stars as, one by one, they appeared,
like gems studding the deep azure sky.

"Are these brave spirits now reigning in one of these orbs of beauty?"
thought the poet; "or are the stars themselves living souls, spirits
freed from the chains of matter, shining for ever in the firmament
above? I must know more of that Hebrew religion, and seek out those
who can initiate me into its mysteries, if it be lawful for a stranger
to learn them."

And then the thoughts of Lycidas turned to his poem, and he tried to
throw into verse some of the ideas suggested to his mind by the
martyrdoms which he had witnessed, but he speedily gave up the attempt
in despair.

"Poetic ornament would but mar the grand outlines of such a history,"
he murmured to himself; "who would carve flowers upon the pyramids, or
crown with daisies an obelisk pointing to the skies!"

Gradually sleep stole over the young Greek, his head drooped upon his
arm, his eyelids closed, and he slumbered long and deeply.

Lycidas was awakened by sounds near him, low and subdued, the cautious
tread of many feet, the smothered whisper, and the faint rustle of
garments. The Athenian opened his eyes, and gazed from his place of
concealment behind the thick branching stem of the olive on a strange
and striking scene.

The moon, full and round, had just risen, but the foliage of the trees
as yet obscured most of her light, as her silver lamp hung near the
horizon, casting long black shadows over the earth. Several forms were
moving about in the faint gleam, apparently engaged in some work which
needed concealment, for none of them carried a torch. Lycidas, himself
silent as the grave, watched the movements of those before him with a
curiosity which for a time so engrossed his mind as to take away all
sense of personal danger, though he soon became aware that the
intrusion of a stranger on these mysterious midnight proceedings would
not only be unwelcome, but might to himself be perilous.

The group of men assembled in that retired spot were evidently Hebrews,
and as the eyes of Lycidas became accustomed to the gloom, and the
ascending moon had more power to disperse it, he intuitively singled
out one from amongst them as the leader and chief of the rest. Not
that his tunic and mantle were of richer materials than those of his
comrades; plain and dusty with travel were the sandals upon his feet,
and he wore the simple white turban which a field-labourer might have
worn. But never had turban been folded around a more majestic brow,
and the form wrapped in the mantle had the unconscious dignity which
marks those born to command. The very tread of his sandalled feet
reminded the Athenian of that of the desert lion, and from the dark
deep-set eye glanced the calm soul of a hero.

"Here be the place," said the chief, if such he were, pointing to the
earth under the branches of the very tree against the trunk of which,
on the further side, the temple of Lycidas was pressed, as he bent
eagerly forward to watch and to listen.

Not a word was uttered in reply; but the men around, after laying aside
their upper garments, set to work to dig what appeared to be a wide
trench. The leader himself threw off his mantle, took a spade, and
laboured with energy, bringing the whole force of his powerful muscles
to bear on his humble toil. All worked in profound silence, nor paused
in their labour except now and then to listen, like men to whom danger
had taught some caution.

Whilst the men went on with their digging, Lycidas strained his eyes to
distinguish the outlines of a group at some paces' distance, which
doubtless, though separated from them, belonged to the same party as
those so actively employed before him. Two forms appeared to be seated
on the ground in a spot evidently chosen for its seclusion; one of them
was clothed in dark garments, the other was shrouded in a large white
linen veil. Other figures in white seemed to be stretched upon the
ground in repose. Lycidas watched this silent group for hours, and all
remained motionless as marble, save that ever and anon the dark female
figure slightly swayed backwards and forwards with a rocking motion,
and that several times the veiled head was turned with a quick
movement, as of alarm, when the breeze rustled in the olives a little
more loudly than usual, or bore sounds from the city to the woman's
sensitive ear.

Meanwhile the work of digging proceeded steadily, and the mound of
earth thrown out grew large, for the arms of those who laboured were
strong and willing, and no man paused either to rest or to speak save
once. It was almost a relief to Lycidas to hear at last the sound of a
human voice from one of those phantom-like toilers by night. He who
spoke was the fiercest-looking of the band, with something of the
wildness of Ishmael's race on features whose high strongly-marked
outlines showed the Hebrew cast of countenance in its most exaggerated
type.

"There's more thunder in the air," he observed, resting for a minute on
his spade, and addressing himself to him whom Lycidas had mentally
named "the Hebrew prince," on account of his commanding height and
noble demeanour, and the deference with which his order had been
received.

No answer was returned to the remark, and the wild-looking Jew spoke
again,--

"Have you heard that Apelles starts to-morrow for Modin, charged with a
mission from the tyrant to compel its inhabitants to do sacrifice to
one of his accursed idol-gods?"

"Is it so? then ere daybreak I set out for Modin," was the reply.

"It may be that the venerable Mattathias would rather have you absent,"
observed the first speaker.

"Abishai, when the storm bursts, a son's place is by the side of his
father," said the princely Hebrew; and as he spoke he threw up a
spadeful of earth from the pit which Lycidas doubted not was meant for
a grave.

Again the work proceeded in silence. The moon had risen above the
trees before that silence was once more broken, this time by the leader
of the band,--

"It is deep enough now, and broad enough; go ye and bring the honoured
dead."

The command was at once obeyed. All the men present, excepting the
chief himself, who remained standing in the grave, went towards the
group which has been previously mentioned. Interest chained Lycidas to
the spot, though it occurred to his mind that prudence required him to
seize this favourable opportunity of quietly making his escape.

The Greek remained, watching in the shadow, as on the rudest of biers,
formed by two javelins fastened by cross-bars together, the swathed
forms of the dead, one after another, were borne to the edge of the
pit. They were followed by the two female mourners that had kept guard
over the remains while the grave was being prepared. The first of
these was a tall, stately woman, with hair which glistened in the
moonbeams like silver, braided back from a face of which age had not
destroyed the majestic beauty. Sternly sad stood the Hebrew matron by
the grave of the martyred dead; no tear in her eyes, which were bright
with something of prophetic fire. So might a Deborah have stood, had
Sisera won the victory, and she had had to raise the death-wall over
Israel's slain, instead of the song of triumph to hail the conquerors'
return.

The other female form, which was smaller, and exquisitely graceful in
its movements, remained slightly retired, and still closely veiled.
Lycidas remarked that the eyes of the leader watched that veiled form,
as it approached, with a softened and somewhat anxious expression.
This was, however, but for some moments, and the Hebrew then gave his
undivided attention to the pious work on which he was engaged.

Still standing in the grave, the chief received the bodies, one by one,
from the men who had borne them to the place of interment. He took
each corpse in his powerful arms, and unaided laid it down in its last
resting-place, as gently as if he were laying down on a soft couch a
sleeper whom he feared to awaken. Lycidas caught a glimpse of the pale
placid face of one of the shrouded forms, but needed not that glimpse
to feel certain that those whose remains were thus secretly interred by
kinsmen or friends at the peril of their lives, were the same as those
whose martyrdom he had so indignantly witnessed. The Athenian knew
enough of the Syrian tyrant to estimate how daring and how difficult
must have been the feat of rescuing so many of the bodies of his
victims from the dishonour of being left to the dog or the vulture.
The devotion of the living, as well as the martyrdom of the dead, gave
an interest to that midnight burial which no earthly pomp could have
lent. The spirit of the young Athenian glowed with generous sympathy;
and of high descent and proud antecedents as he was, Lycidas would have
deemed it an honour to have helped to dig that wide grave for the eight
slaughtered Jews.

The burial was conducted in solemn silence, save as regarded the Hebrew
matron, and her deep thrilling accents were meeter requiem for the
martyrs than the loudest lamentations of hired mourners would have
been. As the chief received each lifeless form into his arms, the
matron uttered a short sentence over it, in which words of the ancient
Hebrew spoken by her fathers blended with the Chaldee, then the
language commonly used by the Jews. Her thoughts, as she gave them
utterance, clothed themselves in unpremeditated poetry; the Athenian
could neither understand all her words, nor her allusions to the past,
but the majesty of gesture the music of sound, made him listen as he
might have done to the inspired priestess of some oracle's shrine.

"We may not wail aloud for thee, my son, nor rend our garments, nor put
on sackcloth, nor pour dust upon our heads. He who hath bereaved thee
of life, would bereave thee even of our tears; but thou art resting on
Abraham's bosom, where the tyrant can reach thee no more.

"Thou art taken away from the evil. Thou seest no longer Jerusalem
trodden by the heathen, nor the abomination of desolation set up in the
sanctuary of the Lord.

"Even as Isaac was laid on the altar, so didst thou yield thy body to
death, and thy sacrifice is accepted.

"As the dead wood of Aaron's rod, cut off from the tree on which it had
grown, yet blossomed and bare fruit; cut off as thou art in thy prime,
thy memory shall blossom for ever.

"The three holy children trod unharmed the fiery furnace seven time
heated. He who was with them was surely with thee; and the Angel of
Death hath bidden thee come forth, naught harmed by the fire, save the
bonds of flesh which thy free spirit hath left behind.

"To touch a dead body is counted pollution; to touch thine is rather
consecration; for it is a holy thing which thou hast freely offered to
God."

With peculiar tenderness the matron breathed her requiem over the
seventh body as it was laid by the rest.

"Youngest and best-beloved of thy mother; thou flower of the spring,
thou shalt slumber in peace on her bosom. Ye were lovely and pleasant
in your lives, in your deaths ye are not divided."

It was with calm chastened sorrow that the last farewell had been
spoken as the bodies of the martyred brethren had been placed in their
quiet grave; but there was a bitterness of grief in the wail of the
Hebrew woman over their mother, which made every word seem to Lycidas
like a drop of blood wrung from the heart of the speaker.

"Blessed, oh, thrice blessed art thou, Solomona, my sister, richest of
mothers in Israel! Thou hast borne seven, and amongst them not one has
been false to his God. Thy diadem lacks no gem--thy circle of love is
unbroken. Blessed she who, dying by her martyred sons, could say to
her Lord: _Lo, I and the children whom Thou hast given me;_" and as the
matron ended her lament, she tore her silver hair, rent her garments,
and bowed her head with a gesture of uncontrollable grief.

All the bodies having been now reverentially placed in the grave, the
chief rose from it, and joined his companions. Abishai then thus
addressed him:--

"Hadassah hath made her lament. Son of Phineas, descendant of Aaron
the high-priest of God, have you no word to speak over the grave of
those who died for the faith?"

The chief lifted up his right hand towards heaven, and slowly repeated
that sublime verse from Isaiah, which to those who lived in that remote
period must have seemed as full of mystery as of consolation,--_"Thy
dead shall live! My dead body shall they arise! Awake and sing, ye
that dwell in dust: for thy dew the dew of herbs, and the earth, shall
cast out the dead._"[1]

The sound of that glorious promise of Scripture seemed to rouse
Hadassah from her agonizing grief; she lifted up her bowed head, calm
and serene as before. Turning to the veiled woman near her, she said,
"We may not burn perfumes over these our honoured dead, but you, Zarah,
my child, have brought living flowers for the burial, and their
fragrance shall rise as incense. Cast them into the grave ere we close
it."

Obedient to the command of her aged relative, the maiden whom Hadassah
had addressed glided forward to the brink of the grave, and threw down
into it a fragrant shower of blossoms. The movement threw back her
veil, and there flashed upon Lycidas a vision of loveliness more
exquisite than the poet had ever beheld even in his dreams, as the full
stream of moonlight fell on the countenance of the fairest of all the
daughters of Zion. Her long dark lashes drooped, moist with tears, as
she performed her simple act of reverence towards her dead kinsmen;
then Zarah raised her eyes with a mournful sweet expression, which was
suddenly exchanged for a look of alarm--she started, and a faint cry
escaped from her lips. The maiden had caught sight of the stranger
crouching in the deep shadow, her eyes had met his--concealment was
over--Lycidas was discovered!



[1] Isaiah xxvi. 19. It will be observed that interpolated italics are
omitted.





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Previous: Faithful To The Death



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