Following Behind





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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