Edwin Atherstone

(1788-1875 / England)

The Fall Of Nineveh. Book The Fourteenth - Poem by Edwin Atherstone

The sun arose, and flooded earth and sky
With ruby and with gold. From slumber then
The legions waked; and sacrificed, and prayed.
But, ere the third hour, every tent was struck;
And the great army silently marched on.

Still, as they moved, more straightened grew the vale,
More high the mountain range; until, at length,--
As though by earthquake rent--from crown to base,
Each side a precipice perpendicular,
Horrent with jagged rocks that overhung,
Momently threatening fall,--sheer through the heights,
A narrow chasm they saw,--that fearful pass
In which, with all his host, Melchisedek,
Rained on by rocks, had perished. Thither come,--
As had been ordered,--they who led the van,
Bade sound the trumpet--signal; and the host
At once stood still;--with plenteous food and drink
Refreshed themselves; then, elbow on the ground,
Man with man talking earnestly, they lay,
Awaiting new command. The chiefs, meantime,
Arbaces summoned; and, with radiant brow,
High thoughts denoting, thus at once began.

``The horsemen whom at day--break we sent on;
With tidings of the Bactrian are returned.
From Ramah's lofty peak, on the wide vale
Beyond the mountain ridge, have they been seen;
Like to an ant--hill glittering in the sun,
For distance, seeming; but, with the fourth hour
Of morning, may be here. Behoves us then
All diligence to use, reception fit
That we may give them. We must spare not now
For sweat of brow, or weariness of limb:
Hope must give strength; and thought of victory
Be to our hearts as wine. Now, mark me well.
And, that which I shall say, throughout the camp
Let heralds bear around; and every chief
Unto the captains under him explain;
And they unto the soldiers tell again;
Till all shall, like ourselves, well understand;--
Else evil, and not good, may come to us.

``Now, in this fashion have we ordered all.
Let Azariah, with ten thousand men
That draw the bow; and, with ten thousand men,
Sword and spear armed, Abiram,--haste away;
And, close above the entrance of the pass
Concealed, as well they may, all night lie still.

``But, in the morning, when they shall have seen
That the whole Bactrian army hath gone in,--
Then, from their heights descending silently,
Let them the entrance of the pass block up;
And all retreat cut off. In like way, here,--
Chariots, and horse, and mail--clad infantry,
Guarding the outlet, will advance forbid.

``But now,--save those that with Abiram go,
And Azariah,--let us, every man;
Even from the meanest soldier, unto him
That o'er his thousands, and ten thousands rules,--
Food taking for the night, and for the morn,
On both sides of the gorge ascend the hills:
There loose the rocks,--for the last dire extreme
Preparing,--then, with food refresh ourselves;
And, till the morning, lie, and take repose.

``And in the morning, when the Bactrian force
Is heard advancing,--let no soldier stir,
Or speak at all; but in deep stillness lie,
Till he shall hear the signal. Mark me now.

``From point to point, along the rocky heights,
Shall captains of ten thousand take their stand;
But helmless, and unmailed, lest by the gleam
They be discovered. Likest husbandmen,
Or hunters should they seem. When they shall see
That with the Bactrian leaders I have speech,--
For singly to confront them shall I go,--
Let them look heedfully, and mark me well.
While they behold me peaceful, let them, too,
In peace remain; but, if I lift my arm,
And toward the hill--tops look, and cry `Arise!'--
Then, let them also, with a mighty voice,
Cry out, `Arise, arise!' That signal heard,
Let every man leap up, and show himself,
And with a loud voice shout; then, afterwards,
Be still, and wait the end. But let no rock
Be hurled, no dart be flung, no arrow shot:
Let every spearman lift his spear on high;
Let every archer threaten with his bow;
Let every bar of iron, every axe,
Be brandished;--so the Bactrian may behold
That, of a truth, destruction overhangs.

``Then surely will the captains lean to us;
Will give the friendly hand; the oath will take;
And with us leagued against the city go.
So, must it fall before us. ``But, if they,
Stubborn in wrong, will not to reason list;
But, for the king, will rather evil do,
Than, for our just cause, good; then must they die!
For, if ye see that I draw forth my sword,--
At once let spears be thrown, and arrows shot;
The rocks upheaved, and hurled upon their heads.
And though I also perish,--heed it not.
The brave Arabian king will be your chief;
Your counsellor the prophet. Then go back
Against the city, fearless. Still in God
Place trust; and surely shall ye yet prevail!''

Promptly the heralds rode throughout the host,
And made proclaim of that which should be done:
The captains also, each in his degree,
To those beneath him spake;--so that to all
Was it made known; and well was understood.

Then Azariah, with ten thousand men
That drew the bow; and, with ten thousand men,
Sword and spear armed, Abiram, hasted on:
But all the rest, food taking for the night,
And for the morning, to the mountain--tops,
With ponderous hammer, axe, and iron bar
Laden, upclomb; and to their toilsome work
Joyously girt themselves. A league or more,
Each side the chasm, they spread. Like hail--storm, soon,
Fell the thick blows: loud rang the iron bars;
Loud rose the cheering voices. But, ere night,
Their task was finished: every soldier then
Took food; in his wide mantle wrapped himself;
And lay him down to sleep. The peopled hills
Ere long were silent as the wilderness.

All night they slept. But, when the sun arose,
Horse, chariots, infantry, in dense array,
Within the entrance of the pass took place,
And stood in silence. Nor was any sound
Heard 'mid the crowded rocks; for every man,
Where he had slept, lay quiet; breathed his prayer;
Took of his food; and whispered, if he spake.
The traveller through the pass, might have stood still,
And marvelled at the utter solitude.

But, at the third hour, slowly up the gorge
A single chariot moved; for, dimly now
Was heard the sound of an advancing force;
The trampling, and the voices, and the swell,
At intervals, of warlike instruments.
Within the chariot, the majestic Mede,
To full strength now restored, rode calmly on;
At his left hand Belesis,--in that hour,
Fixed every peril of his friend to share.
With them, the horses ruling, Azareel
Rode also; for his claim like risk to abide,
The Mede refused not; since, with those who came,
His kindred, friends, and countrymen, were mixed;
And his own legions--a far different chief
Obeying now; but, haply, to his voice,
If heard, not all unwilling to give ear.

At slow pace up the long defile they went;
Calmly and silently; for lofty thoughts
Each bosom filled, nor of discourse was need.
Before them a short space, two heralds rode;
And, when, at length, they saw the Bactrians nigh,
Their trumpets sounded; and, to those who first
Their errand questioned, answered, and went on.
The soldiers, as they passed them, bent the head;
The captains also lifted up the hand,
And friendly greeting gave. Yet unto none
The three replied; they bowed, and still went on.

But, when they saw that Ahab was come nigh,
With his chief captains riding gallantly,
Then they the heralds bade to sound anew,
And parley with him beg. He, when he saw
Arbaces, and the priest, and Azareel,
Knew them; and, with a cheerful countenance,
And glad voice, welcomed. But, when he had heard
What spake the heralds,--that a conference
Of solemn import by the chiefs was asked;
He lifted up his voice, and gave command
That, while they spake, the army should stand still.
Then, when the trumpets had the signal blown,
And all in silence stood; within his car
He rose; and to the Median captains said:
``What seek ye of us? and as friends, or foes,
Come ye to question us?'' Arbaces then
Stood in his chariot, and thus answered him.

``That which we seek of you, few words may tell:
That as warm friends right gladly would we meet,
And like to brethren go along with you,
With truth can we declare. If good, or ill,
Come from this conference, rests with you alone.
But, from our chariots let us now alight,
And stand together; that the words we speak
May be the better heard: for our discourse,
Perchance, may not be brief: nor to deep thought
Unminist'ring; and action wise and prompt
Of all demanding.'' At this speech amazed,
Ahab stood silent; with a dubious look,
On the great soldier gazing: but, at length,
Thus answered. ``Of a verity, thy words
Sound strangely; and with voice and look that well
Might make us pause, are spoken: not the less,
We will give ear unto thee: and, meantime,--
For now the fifth hour of our march is come,--
The soldiers shall take food, and brief repose.''

That said, he gave the word. The trumpets then
Blew out; and the glad signal was obeyed.
In haste the soldiers took forth food, and drink:
On the smooth turf, in shadow of the rocks,
Sat, and refreshed themselves; then, silent some,
Some in low talk, stretched their tired limbs for rest.
But the chief captains from their cars came down;
And, in the cool shade of a towering peak,--
For now the sun shone fiercely,--with the three
Together stood, that they might hold discourse.

Then first Abihu, captain of the host
Of Sogdiana, spake unto the rest.
A kind man was he, and to Azareel
Bore liking; and a cheerful man, withal,
And generous; but of purpose still unfirm.
Some obscure evil dreading then at hand,
Thus he: ``Let now the tables first be spread,
That these our honored guests, like friends of old,
May sit among us: then, by plenteous food,
And generous wine, when we shall be refreshed,--
With clear head, and warm heart, we may confer:
For, in an empty stomach, never yet
Bred aught but choler and distemperate thought.''

To him Arbaces; ``With a thankful heart
Would we your food partake; and of the cup
Drink with you; and for ever be as friends:--
But, let us first our thoughts speak openly;
Lest that the hands which break of the same bread,
Should, after, draw the sword as enemies.
And let our words be honest: let us not
Strive cunningly each other to deceive;
For God is not deceived. Speak truly, then;
And tell us, whither go ye; and for what.

``In our great trouble when we sent to you,
And said, `now hasten to us, and bring help;
So shall ye, also, from the yoke be freed;'--
Did ye not answer us; `behold! we go
To our own countries; to our homes, our wives,
Our parents, and our children, and our friends:
Sore tired of arms are we, and cannot come:'--
So said ye not unto us? yet, behold!
Ye are returning. Have ye better thought,
Since thus ye answered us? And come ye now
With us to join, and 'gainst the city go?''

Thus he; and there was silence; for no man
Knew how to give fit answer. But, at length,
Quickly forth stepping, Nahor,--who, in place
Of Azareel, the Arachosians ruled,--
With a dark visage, and sharp accent, thus,
Sneeringly spake: ``First answer ye,--and say,
By what right dare ye so to question us.
And how will ye compel us to reply,
If we should hold our peace? Have ye at hand
Your thrice a hundred thousand mailëd men,
To punish us, if we should disobey?
Not unto you are we accountable:
And wherefore should we render to you, then,
Reason for aught we do? . . . . Where now is gone
The might that threatened to sweep down the walls
Of the eternal city? Hath it sped?
And have the bulwarks fallen? Or are not ye
Yourselves, the boasters,--as full well we know,--
Like to the last year's dust gone utterly?
Let the strong threaten, and his thoughts speak loud;
But let the weak man stand from out the way,
And hold his peace.'' So he, with bitter scorn;
And, in astonishment, Arbaces, soon,
To answer him, prepared: but Azareel
Stood forward hastily,--preventing him.
``Speak to him not, Arbaces; for his thoughts
Are evil; and he hopeth to breed strife.
To Ahab speak thou, and to all the rest;
And they with calm words will reply to thee:
But, for this man, who standeth where I stood;
Where I again shall stand; him know I well
Of old, false, envious, mean, and covetous.''

Ere yet his speech was done,--with fury filled,
Nahor his sword drew forth,--by one quick stroke,
Rather than slow--paced words, reply to give:
But Ahab, springing forward, seized his arm;
``Hold! Art thou mad?'' indignantly he cried:
``Would'st bring a foul disgrace upon us all?
Come not these men,--three men amid a host,--
In peaceful manner to confer with us;
And with the bloody steel would'st thou reply?''

That hearing, Nahor put his weapon back:
But still 'gainst Azareel his heart was wroth;
And how the most to incense him, was he bent.
Yet Azareel him heeded not; but thus
To Ahab spake. ``Let not, 'twixt us and you,
This man cause strife: but to Arbaces now
Do thou reply; and say,--why come ye back;
And unto whom your succour ye intend.
Surely, ye come not, in the oppressor's hands
To put a keener scourge; nor, upon them
That are already fettered, heavier chains!
Surely, the glitter of the tryant's gold,
The glare of his most lying promises,
Have not so dazzled you, that ye, for good,
Mistake worst evil!'' Wrathfully he spake;
His face began to kindle, and his voice
Tempest to threaten: but Belesis laid
His hand upon him, and, with calm tone, thus:
``Speak thou not farther now; but lend thine ear:
For Ahab is addressed to answer us.''

Then Ahab, resting lightly on his spear,
Stood forth to speak unto them. A tall man
Was he; of bright and cheerful countenance;
And goodly to behold: his broad, fair brow
Spake kindness, courage, openness of heart.
First, on the captains round he cast his eye;
Then, on Arbaces; and, at length, began.

``Ye ask us, wherefore do we now return;
Whither we go; to whom--and for what end.
Amid three hundred thousand armëd men,
Ye three men come, and these things ask of us;
Yet cannot we refuse to speak with you.

``But, how, then, shall we answer? May we not
Justly first ask of you; and bid you say,
Wherefore thus bluntly ye interrogate?
May we not thither go, or hither come,
As to ourselves seems best? Surely, with right,
May we this thing require. Then, unto us
First answer thou; and say, why roughly thus
Ye question us; and why should we reply.
Are not your mighty men trod down like grass?
Are they not gone like sands before the wind?--
What weighs it then to you, which way we go,
Or wherefore--what we do, or leave undone?
I ask of you in peace.'' Arbaces then;
``And I, not less in peace, will answer thee.
We ask these things, because, to us, and you,
This matter more than life, or death, imports:
And ye must answer us, because a shame,
And foul injustice were it to refuse:
For, to the strong alone doth it belong
To question him who doeth wickedly?
Is justice, to the mighty man, one thing,
And, to the weak, another? Shall the throng
Of swords make virtue of iniquity?
If, as thou sayst, our hosts are trod like grass;
Are scattered like the dust before the winds,--
Lose we, thence, right to question the unjust?

``Yet, say I not that we are trodden down;
Nay, I proclaim to you,--we are strong in arms,
In hope are confident; and that alike
With justice, and with power, we question you:
For, this day must we know you friends, or foes:
And that which on this day ye shall resolve,
Will in all times be famous, and all lands.''

While thus Arbaces spake, his voice grew stern,
And fearful; and his glance was like a sword
To whom it fell on. With a look perplexed,
Then Ahab answered him. ``Thy words are dark,
And do amaze me. From the king came men
Who said: `Assyria's foes are melted off,
Like dew--drops when the sun ariseth bright;
Like grass beneath the giant's foot are crushed;
Are scattered as the sand when tempest wakes;
And never more shall''' . . . . ``Falsely spake they then,''
Broke in the Mede: ``liars, or lie--deceived!
For, mark me,--were the tyrant's myriads here,
Leagued with your own to crush us--strength have we,
In one vast ruin to o'erwhelm them all!

``Trust not the treacherous guide, or in the snare
Soon shall your feet be fast. But, know ye not,
Men of the East, that dew, at morn drunk up,
Ere night, in storm and thunder may come down?
The grass that hath been crushed, will rise again;
The scattered sands, in whirlwind may return,
And tomb you where you stand. But now again
We pray you,--to the things that we have asked,
Let us have peaceful answer.'' Ahab then
Thus spake: ``Thy words, half question, and half threat,
Truly and briefly will I answer now:
But, in thy turn, thou also unto us
Shalt give reply. When ye, of your own will,--
Our counsel asking not,--had drawn the sword;
And, in the fury of his wrath, the king
Threatened destruction on you,--in that day,
Were we not better friends to you--our aid
To both refusing--than if, with the rest,
We had combined to crush you? Of a truth,
We then were sick of arms; and longed to go
Unto our wives, our countries, and our friends:
And, this to compass, we the vengeance braved
Of the indignant king. Seeks not each man
His own good, by the way he deemeth best?
If, in resistance, ye your vantage sought;
We, rather, in retirement sought for ours.
Ere ye called on us, ye had struck the blow:
We deemed you strong enough to wage the fight.

``But, all the fruit that victory to us
Could give, already stood within our reach;
Peace, and content, home, parents, wives, and friends:
Why, then, should we remain,--with toil, and blood,
The loss to risk of that which we had gained;
And which that peril, and that blood, and toil,
Could, at the last, but give? Your good ye sought
In the stern strife for liberty; but we,
In the enjoyment of our home, and ease.
Your choice we blame not; censure, then, not ours.

``Ye sent to sue our aid against the king:
The king sent, afterward; commanded, lured,
By promise, and by gold, our aid 'gainst you:
Yet neither unto him did we give ear;
But still went joyously upon our way:
In the green shady places taking rest;
Drinking amid the vineyards; and with fruits,
And savoury foods, one long and pleasant feast
Making amid the rich plains as we passed.

``But, from the king, at length, again came men,
Who said, `the rebels are trod down like worms;
Like a thin smoke they all have melted off;
Like dried leaves in the tempest have they fallen,--
Take ye, then, heed; for, now, 'gainst you the king
Hath aimed the thunder; and ye, too, shall fall,
And perish; unless quickly ye repent;
And turn again; and, with a solemn oath,
Vow to him everlasting fealty.
But, if his words ye hearken; and return;
And thus swear to him,--then, will he forgive
The wickedness that 'gainst him ye have done.
And, of the chief among you, who the first
So hearken, and repent them, and return,--
Will he make governors of provinces,
Judges, and rulers: nay, to every man
That, on the first day, shall return to him,--
To each, in just degree, shall be reward.
And, when ye shall have come, and sworn to him
Allegiance unto death; then may ye all,--
All of you whose appointed year is run,--
Return unto your country: and no more
The anger of the king shall threaten you.'

``Arbaces, when these things were told to us,
A marvel seems it that we turned again?
Who loves not riches, honor, peace, and home,
Better than toil, and pain, in foreign land,
Peril, and, haply, death? We stayed our course,
And to the king turned back: for peace, and wealth,
To him invited us; but pain, and toil,
And danger threatened, if we held our way.
As we did, would not also ye have done?
Who, then, shall say we have done foolishly,
Or meanly, or the thing that is unjust?
And what, Arbaces, would ye have of us?''

So Ahab; and his captains were well pleased
At that which he had said. Arbaces, now,
To answer him, prepared; but, ere he spake,
Belesis, stepping forward hastily,
With tone impetuous thus. ``And ask ye, then,
Who shall say to you, `ye have done a thing
Unjust, and mean, and foolish'?--They that dwell
Where the sun riseth in the farthest East;
And they that see him when he goeth down
Into the ocean of the uttermost West!
The gray--haired man that shall to--morrow die;
And he that countless ages hence shall live!
I tell you, all the world will cry on you;
And, to the end of time, your names will stand
Despised, and hated, if your wickedness
And folly ye behold not, and repent,
And turn again unto the better path.
See ye not, miserable that ye are!
In what foul pit ye are about to plunge?
Exclaim not; nor frown on me; but give ear.
Had ye yourselves into deep water fallen,
And cried aloud for help; and had the men
Who saw and heard you, answered mockingly,
`Ye can swim strongly; and, albeit the flood
Do come against you, and the whirlpool ope
Its jaws to seize you, yet may ye escape:
Buffet the billows, therefore, to the last:
We cannot stay to help you; for our wives,
Our children, and our fathers wait for us:
We cannot stoop to draw you from the depths;
For there is toil and peril in the task;
And we ourselves might haply be dragged in.'--
Had they thus said to you, and gone their way,
And left you struggling in your agony;
Would ye not then have answered them, `Pass on!
Selfish and heartless! go upon your way!
And, unto us as ye this day have done,
So may just Heaven requite it unto you!'

``Men of the East--and is it not even so
That ye to us have done? Have ye not passed,
When we for help cried out; and, in the hour
Of our great struggle, left us to our fate?
And herein have ye not done wickedly,
Basely, and foolishly? But ye reply,
That ye, by your own way, your own good seek:
And unto you I answer that, even so,
Do the vile thief, and midnight murderer:
I say to you, most evil is your good;
And your flowered path must in destruction end!
What! are ye then so weak, so blind, so crazed,
That in the lion's talons ye would go,
Assured that he would dandle you, and feed,
Fondle, and make disport with you? Insane!
Like young kids would he rend you; lap your blood!
Already in his palace--den he roars,
Rejoicing that his victims are at hand.
Honors, high places, do ye look to have;
Riches, and power? Infatuate! Stripes, and chains,
And ignominy, would your honors be:
Your riches would be shame, and poverty:
Your power, and your high places, would be graves!
Think ye the tyrant calls you to forgive,
And to reward you? Think ye that, for love,
He needs must see you; and with warm embrace
To his heart compress you? Do his eyes rain tears,
When all your faithfulness to him, in hour
Of danger so well tried, he calls to mind?
And will he of you all make governors,
Judges, or kings? Oh! hasten to him then;
And leap into his fatherly embrace:
Be unto him as duteous sons; and he
Will surely take you to his heart, and say,
`Ye are my children; I your father am!'

``And is it thus ye hope to be received?
Tremble! and pause! for, when he cometh on,
Ye shall behold the earthquake at your feet!
Hath he already lured you with a lie;
And will ye still believe him? Said he not
That we were gone like darkness at the morn?
But we are many, and strong, and ardent yet:
Said he not also, `come unto me now,
And I will pardon you, and set you high,
In place, and power, and give you of the spoil?'
In this thing also speaketh he a lie;
And will ye yet believe him? Ah! be sure,
His pardon would be bonds, and ignominy,
And chastisement, and death! Then would ye wail,
And beat upon your breasts, and cry aloud,
`Oh! that we had but done the righteous thing;
Had hearkened when the oppressëd called on us;
And given our swords to cut the nations' bonds!
Oh! that we had but listened to the words
Of wisdom; and had not lent willing ear
Unto the lying tongue! upon us then
This grievous burthen had not fallen; these stripes,
These chains, these mockeries! every man, content,
In his own vineyard might have sat him down;
Of his own fig--tree eaten! and his sons,
His children's children, might have blessëd him!
But, now, we are a loathing and a mock!
They that go by, do hiss, and spit at us;
And they that are afar off, wag the head,
And point at us, and laugh the laugh of scorn!
Oh! that we had but died before this day!'

``Men of the East--so would ye wail, and cry,
If basely with the oppressor ye could join,
And triumph with him in our overthrow!
But, not with you remaineth more the power,
'Twixt him and us to balance: life, with us,
And honor;--or black infamy, and death
Immediate here--your sole alternate now!
If, blindly obstinate, ye still refuse
The hand that we hold forth; think not on us
To set the conquering foot; nor to the king
Base aid to give: ye shall yourselves be crushed;
And the strong walls shall yet be cast to earth;
For so the hand of God hath written it;
So in their courses the bright stars proclaim!
Will ye then for us, or against us, stand?
In honor live, or die in infamy?
Will ye with us go on, to break the chain;
Or die in base attempt to rivet it?
We wait your answer: but, beware! beware!''

He ended sternly. Like to coals of fire,
His eyes burned; but his face was deadly pale.

His speech astonished; and no few alarmed;
So that among the captains, for a while,
Was anxious silence. But, at length, once more
Spake Nahor; for he feared lest, answered not,
Such words might stir the leaders 'gainst the king.
With the low tone of scorn and hate,--fear--checked,
At first spake he; but soon, to frenzy fired,
In a loud torrent gave his malice vent.

``Strange things, O prophet! dost thou tell to us:
And with good reason may we silent stand,
And pallid thus of hue, if what thou sayst,
Be of a verity the word of God.
But, how then shall we know it? Canst thou not
Give unto us some token that these things
Are, of a truth, revealings from above;
And not thine own vain dreams? If by the hand
Of God they have been written; show to us
The characters thereof, that also we
May read them, and believe. The king, thou sayst,
Speaketh a lie; give not your ear to him;
But who, then, will assurance render us
That what ye speak is true? Ye said, and say,
`The strong walls surely shall be overthrown;
The king shall perish;' but, like rocks the walls
Stand yet; the king is mightiest of all kings.
How then shall we believe you? Ye demand,
`For, or against us, will ye draw the sword?
In honor will ye live; or die in shame?'
Easy the answer; for, where breathes the man
That would not rather far in honor live,
Than in dishonor die? But, who shall say
If ye invite us to the way thereof?
How know we if, with you to draw the sword,
Be not with shame to die? if, for the king
To stand, be not with honor to live on?
Is it a thing, then, of such common course,
For the defeated in renown to live;
The conqueror in infamy to die;
That we unto your words, with open ears
Must listen; and do even as ye would;
Nor dare to ask `how will ye show these things?'

``Where are your armies now, your spears, and swords,
Your mail--clad horsemen, and your charioteers,
With which to bring about this mighty work?
Are they not swept away from off the earth,
Like mist of morning when the tempest comes?
Bring them before us; let us see the strength
That shall these great things do: then, to your words
Haply we may attend. But ye are cheats,
Abominations--hateful--false as hell!
With the foul lying tongue are come to us;
And with the cunning, and malignant heart,
To lure us also to the fatal pit
In which your feet have fallën. Hypocrites!
Scourgings, and scoffs, and spittings, fitter were,
Than peaceful words, to answer you. Again
I do demand,--where are your mighty ones,
Your mail--clad horsemen, and your charioteers?
Your hosts that shall the city throw to earth?
Will ye put sword within the mouldering hand,--
Upon the rotten corse put helm and mail?
Back with you then! unto your dens get back,
And hiding--places; and seek never more
To poison with your venomed lies our hearts!''

He ceased; for passion choked him: like dark flame,
His lurid face; his mouth was thick with foam.
But, as he spake, spake also not a few,
Crying in mockery, ``Show to us your might;
Your chariots, and your horsemen; show to us
The men that shall the eternal walls throw down;
Bring them before us, that we may believe.''

But not, as yet, Arbaces would reply:
With anger boiling o'er, when Azareel
Upon the speech of Nahor would have burst,--
Still had he checked him; when the impetuous priest,--
All caution lost,--would on him have poured forth
His wrath in torrents,--on the lifted arm
Gently had touched him, and in whisper calmed.

But, when the tumult was a little stilled;
Again before the captains he stood forth,
And,--unto Nahor deigning not reply,--
Looked round upon the rest, and solemnly
Thus spake unto them: ``We in peace have come
Among you; and with insult been received!
Yet, not in anger would we answer you;
For still we trust the evil thought will pass;
The evil tongue be mute; the evil deed
Repented of; and that ye yet will see
The righteous path before you; and will gird
Your loins up, and set forward manfully,
To run the good race, the good battle fight.

``Men of the East--then hear me; weigh my words;
For now the day is come that ye must live
New life; or perish in your wickedness!

``Shoot not the lip of scorn, nor shake the head;
The day is come; the hour! and o'er you now
The hand of God is stretched, to lead you on,
Or in your guilt to crush you! Hear me, then.

``Do ye love thraldom, more than liberty?
Than honor, do ye more love infamy?
With the oppressor would ye join to oppress,
Rather than aid the oppressëd to get free?
Assyria's king do ye dread more than God,
That ye would aid him to do wickedly?
Is all your ancient fame forgotten now,
Or prized no longer? In the days of old,
When at the feet of the Assyrian fell
The vanquished nations,--at the Bactrian hills
First was his hot course stayed: for your stern sires
Loved iron liberty, amid their vales
And mountains, more than silken slavery
Within the gorgeous palaces of kings!
They fought like lions that defend their young
Against the hunters: they no foot of ground
Gave up, that was not flooded with their blood:
At night defeated, on the morrow still,
Fiercer for fight they came: the morning's hurt
They bound; and drew again the sword at eve:
Thirst, hunger, toil, and death, did they endure;
But slavery they never could endure!
They fought, they bled, they triumphed, and were free!

``Such, men of Bactria! your forefathers were;
Such their eternal honor! But, alas!
For you what shall I say? Lions are ye,
That give your young into the hunter's hands,
And say, `do with them even as you list:'
Blood do ye shed; but 'tis the blood of kid,
Lamb, sheep, or ox, of which ye make your feast!
Your valour is submission to your foe!
Ye court the fetters, and are proud of bonds!
Lift not your voices, for I will be heard:
Clap not the hand, nor laugh, lest other sounds
Stop short your mockery? Hear me! I demand!''

With power tremendous spake he; and his look
Grew terrible, that those who stood at hand,
Drew backward, fear--struck. Over all the din,
His voice uplifting sternly, he pursued:

``Where are our horsemen, do ye ask me still,
Our chariots, and our spearmen, and our swords?
Hark to the answer, men of Bactria!
Our horse, and cars, before you block the pass:
Spearmen, and archers, seal it up behind!
Fast prisoned are ye,--never to go forth,
Till ye have seen your error; and have sworn,
In face of highest Heaven, with us to join,
Against the oppressing city and the king.
Nay--yet a little longer hear me--hear,--
A little longer'' . . . . With uplifted hands,
So he, conjuringly; but no man heard.

``Our feet are in the snare! Into the pit
We have all fallën! We shall perish here;
And leave our bones to moulder!'' Piteously
So wailed out many,--looking here, and there,
Wild with bewilderment. And, when the troops
That tumult heard, from off the ground they sprang,
And called out also,--running to and fro,--
Confused, and wonder--stricken, and afraid.

But some among the captains cried, ``Send out
Before us, and behind, to try the pass;
That we may know the truth.'' Others exclaimed,
``Men of the East! be still; he uttereth lies.''
But Nahor drew his sword; and toward them sprang,
Franticly yelling, ``Let them die the death!''

From him some caught the madness; and the din
Grew terrible; swords flashed, and spears were raised.
But Ahab, and Abihu, cried aloud,--
And, with them, of the captains not a few,--
``Hold! touch them not, or we may perish all!
Keep back! and let us farther question them.''

So calling out, they, also, drew the sword;
And more the discord and confusion raged.

Belesis, meantime, cried unceasingly,
And Azareel,--to this side and to that,
Turning, with upraised hands; conjuring all;
Imploring them for silence: but in vain.

With folded arms, brow darkened, eye of fire,
And lip compressed, Arbaces for a time,
A calm awaiting stood. But when, at length,
Too well he saw the storm abated not;
Nay, every instant gathered fiercer rage,
And threatened to o'erwhelm them,--then he looked
To the rock--summits,--lifted up his arm;
And, over all the tumult sending forth
A shout that made air quiver, cried, ``Arise!''

The Median captains, watching on the heights,
Beheld, and heard; sprang upright; raised their arms;
And, hot as trumpets sounding the assault,
Sent on the word, ``Arise!'' As if the cliffs
Had opened, and given forth an armëd brood,
Sprang from their hiding--places then the Medes;
And with the thunder of their shoutings shook
The firmament,--that on the Bactrian host
Fell terror: their strength failed them; and their tongues
Clave to the palate. Looking up, they saw
To north, and south, the bow, the lifted spear,
The bar of iron brandished. But no rock
Was loosened from its hold; no spear was cast;
No arrow was let go. Thrice did the Medes,
Thus thunder o'er their heads; then lowered the spear;
Relaxed the bow; laid down the iron bar;
And stood in a deep silence. All the host
Of Bactria likewise in deep silence stood;
Palsied with fear and wonder. But, at length,
Abihu, trembling, toward Arbaces ran;
By the arm grasped him, and cried piteously,
``Speak to us,--speak,--and let this day be peace.''
Arbaces then looked round, and thus began.

``Said I then falsely,--we are strong in arms;
In hope are confident; and that alike
With justice, and with power, we question you?
Men of the East--now hearken to my words:
And, as with us you deal, even so with you
May God deal also! Ye are many, and brave;
Yet now your lives are but as one man's life;
And, the word spoken, ye are all dead men!
The pass is stopped before you, and behind;
Arrows, and spears, on both sides threaten you;
The rocks are loosened; and the bars await
To hurl them down, and grind you as the corn
Beneath the millstone. Then, for tyranny,
Will ye all perish? or, for liberty,
Live on, and triumph? Shall I call down friends,
To give you the embrace of brotherhood;
Or summon the rock--storm to bury you?
For life, or death, now speak ye? for our cause,
Or for the tyrant's?'' From the captains then,
And from the soldiers also, who far off
Had heard him,--for with powerful voice he spake,--
A cry arose, ``The Medes! the Medes! the Medes!
With them against the city will we go!
We will go on against proud Nineveh!''
Many cried also, ``The deceitful king
Falsely hath spoken, to destroy us all!
Against him and his city will we go.''

Then Ahab, in the sight of all, stepped forth,
And bowed before the Mede: from his own loins
The sword ungirded; the bright helmet took
From off his head; and with loud voice, that all
His words might hear, thus spake. ``Assuredly,
Thee hath God named the chief of all these hosts;
That thou may'st lead them on triumphantly
Into the stronghold of Assyria's king,
And to his gorgeous palaces! Behold!
Into thy hands, then, do I yield the rule;
And will an oath swear to thee; and thy word
Obey; and in this cause fight zealously:
For now I am persuaded that, in truth,
Thou art the chosen of God; and that, through thee,
Will He do great things for us.'' Saying thus,
He bent unto the Mede his knee; the sword,
And helmet laid before his feet. Then all
The captains, and the soldiers who beheld,
Rejoiced, and clapped the hand, and cried aloud,
``Long live Arbaces, chief of all the hosts!''

Arbaces then raised Ahab from the ground,
And to his bosom clasped him: on his head
The helm replaced; the sword around his loins
Regirded; and with cheerful voice thus spake.

``Wisely and well in this thing hast thou done;
And thy great error of the past redeemed;
For unto thee will chiefs and soldiers look;
And, as thou dost, so, haply, will they do.
But turn thee now, and to the captains speak;
That we may surely know how they incline.
Let, then, all those whose hearts are on our side,
Stay here in the cool shadow: but, let those
That are against us, stand upon the north.
Then shall be seen whereon our hope doth rest.''

So he; and Ahab, as he willed him, turned,
And to the captains with a firm voice spake:

``Men of the East: Ye see in what a strait
We now do stand; that, either in this pass,--
Like that old king of whom last night we spake,--
Melchisedek,--we our unburied limbs
Must to the vulture and the wild dog leave;
Or with the Medes a solemn covenant vow;
And take up wholly here our lot with them:
For never may the wine--cup, or the feast,
Or joys of love, be his, who solemnly
Would lie to Heaven, and, with low cunning, think
To cheat God, and from peril so to 'scape!
For me, I do behold in this thing now,
The hand of Heaven stretched forth, some mighty work
To accomplish: and I do confess to you,
That we too easily, I think, did lean
To the suggestion of a selfish heart,
That made the joys of home, and peace, outweigh
All things beside; and tempted us to leave,
Ingloriously, a strife'' . . . . ``Said I not so?''
Breaking upon his speech, cried Azareel:
``Said I not so unto you, on that night
When ye did scoff my prayer, my warnings mock?
Men of the East! redeem your error now!
What to Assyria's tyrant do we owe?
What know we of him, save as of the power
That all the nations holds in vassalage?
Scarce can the sun at once o'erlook the lands
That call him lord: into his chests are poured,
The congregated riches of the east:
To every country, doth his will appoint
The governor; and from the height of power,
Whomso he will, he, by a word, doth cast.

``But, is he, then, more mighty than all men?
Hath he subdued us by a stronger arm;
Or to a loftier wisdom made us bow?
No! amid women have his conquests been!
His wisdom hath been potent at the feast!
Thus long have we lain prostrate at his feet
Because we ne'er before have striven to rise!
For ages have the nations tamely owned
Assyria's king their lord: but they whose power
Subdued them, lived far back; their bones are dust!
They, truly, with the arm of might struck down
Who dared resist them; and upon their necks
Planted the conqueror's foot; for they were strong,
And fierce, and terrible to look upon.
But, since that day, the vanquished East hath lain
Like to a giant stunned, who knoweth not
That he who struck the blow, himself hath fallen.
But, let her now in all her strength arise;
And the strong cords that bound her to the earth,
Like to burnt flax shall snap!'' So he; and thus
Ahab, the fervor catching, called aloud:
``Speak then at once, men of the East, and say,--
Will ye here perish, faithful slaves to him
Who hath oppressed you, and with lies deceived?
Or will you with the Medes swear fellowship;
Fight in their battles; and in freedom live?

``The king hath promised you the rebel's spoil:
But, let us promise to ourselves the spoil,
Far richer, of the fraudful king himself;
And of that tyrannous city, whose proud foot,
Through ages, hath all nations of the East
Trodden as dust; whose vaults o'erflow with gold,
And jewels; and whose nobles are as kings.
The spoil, at present, lives but in our hope;--
Be, then, that hope the brightest. Come ye now;
Let every man whose heart is with the Mede,
Stand on the southern side; but every man
Whose heart is with the king, go toward the north:
So shall be seen how are your minds disposed.''

He ceased; and closer toward the southern cliff
Himself moved instantly; and with him moved
The captains, every one that with him stood.

Then went Arbaces, and to Ahab spake,
And the chief leaders: ``Send ye heralds now
Among the soldiers: and yourselves go too,
The tidings to proclaim. And even as ye,
Each for himself did choose,--so also they
Shall, each man of himself alone, make choice.
Let every soldier, then, when he hath heard,--
Even as he will, to north, or south, move on:
So shall be seen if their thoughts are as yours.''

Then Ahab spake unto the captains nigh,
And to the heralds. They throughout the host
Rode rapidly, and everywhere proclaimed
All which the Mede had said. When this they had heard,
The soldiers with glad heart went on, and stood
Beneath the shadow on the southern side:
And not a man among them all kept back.

That sight beheld,--from both the armies rose
Redoubled bursts of joy. From out the pass,
And from the hill--tops, to and fro were sent
The thunders of rejoicing. When, at length,
The captains and the heralds had returned,--
To Ahab, and the rest, Arbaces spake.
``Ye have the wise path chosen; and we think
That 'gainst us in your hearts is no deceit:
But take ye, notwithstanding, in the sight
Of all around, the solemn oath to us:
Let every soldier also swear the oath;
Then, like a band of brethren, will we join;
And eat and drink together, and be glad:
And, as as one man, against the city go.''

Then, with accustomed rites, first Ahab sware;
And, after him, the captains, every one:
Fidelity unto the Medes they sware,
And to their chief, Arbaces: and no man
Than Nahor spake more eagerly and loud.
But him Arbaces called from out the throng;
And, with stern look, in sight of all, addressed:

``False speaker! shameless coward! hypocrite!
Who, in thy valour, wouldst have shed the blood
Of three men, that, for peaceful conference,
Amid three hundred thousand men had come;--
And of our weakness did'st thy mockery make;
And of the mighty Powers, who rule the earth;
In whom our trust is;--yet the first art now
To cringe, and bend the knee, and speak the words
Of servile adulation! get thee gone!
And stand no more with brave men who go forth
To execute the will of the great Gods.
Henceforth art thou degraded from thy state:
And he whom thou, by violence and lies,
Did'st from his rightful place hope still to keep,--
Again must stand, where thou should'st ne'er have stood.
O'er all the Arachosian host, once more
Is Azareel the leader. As for thee'' . . . .

Still spake he sternly, when, upon the ground,
With bended knee, and lifted hands, his doom
To avert, fell Nahor: yet Arbaces him
Regarded not; but to the heralds turned,
And said unto them; ``Strip his arms away,
And drive him forth: then, as he runs, cry out,
`Behold the coward, and the hypocrite!'''

On Nahor soon the heralds laid their hands;
Took from him the bright helmet, and the mail,
The sword, the gleaming shield; and drove him forth.
But, as he ran, still followed him, and cried,--
While all the soldiers laughed, and mocked, and hissed,--
``Behold the coward, and the hypocrite!''

Then, afterward, the heralds rode around
To every legion; and, with customed rites,
The solemn oath took from them. To the Medes,
And to Arbaces, every man made oath.
And, when it was beheld that all had sworn,
Both hosts again exulted mightily,
And clapped their hands for joy. Arbaces then
Commanded that the Medes on the hill--tops
Backward should go; and, on the open plain,
In order wait the coming of their friends.

To Abdolonimus, who, with the horse
And chariots, filled the entrance of the pass,
Likewise sent he; and bade, as brethren, hail
The Bactrians; and in peace let them come forth.

Also to those who, at its eastern end,
The pass had closed, he sent; the tidings glad
That they might know, and hasten their return.

Quickly arrayed, the Bactrian army then,
In ordered march went forward; foot, and horse,
The chariots, and the camels, and the wains.
Standards waved high; the warlike instruments
Spake out; and every heart was filled with joy.

But, when both armies to the open plain
Had come, they stopped: the captains of both hosts
Embraced each other; and the soldiers, too,
Like friends of old, embraced: then afterwards,
Till sunset,--for the day was now far spent,--
Feasted together, and like brethren were.

But, in the evening, to the Arabian king,
And to Belesis, Ahab spake apart:
``Well know we now, from that which ye have said,
How that the king with subtlety hath sought
To lure us to the death: in his own snare
Then let him fall; so justice shall the best
Be meted to him. Therefore, will I send,
At morn, swift messengers, who thus shall say;
`The Bactrians, thy servants, king of kings!
Repent them of the sin which they have done;
And will return to thee, and bow to earth,
And yield themselves unto thy clemency.
Upon the twelfth day hence will they return:
And, as the king hath promise made to them,
So surely will he do; for now his foes
Are fallen; and who shall stand before his might.'''

Thus Ahab; nor his purpose was opposed.
Then summoned he the messengers; three times
The words spake clearly to them: and, with dawn,
Bade them depart. Ere long, throughout the camp
No sound was, save the tread of sentry's foot.

But, at first tinge of daybreak, from sound sleep
Rose the glad armies; steeds and cars prepared;
Mail donned; their arms got ready; food and drink
In haste despatched; then all in silence stood,
Waiting the Day--God's coming. Cloud, nor mist,
Darkened the crystal sky--vault. Gentle airs
From the cool north came whispering in the ear,
As if good tidings bringing. More and more
Shone the fire--kindling east. A dazzling spark
Gleamed suddenly,--the Light--king's jewelled crown
Was rising; and the vast expanse of sky
Thrilled to his glorious presence. All eyes saw;
To earth sank every knee; and every voice,
Low murmuring, sent up praise, and fervent prayer
For blessing on their righteous enterprise.

A traveller on the mountains might have paused,
Listening the murmur multitudinous,
And thought he heard the moan of far--off sea.

Prayer ended, they arose; in broad, loose line,
For march arrayed themselves; and anxiously
Stood waiting for the signal. Trumpet--blasts,
From van to rear, and lifted gonfalons,
Throughout the host proclaimed it; and at once,--
To the strong tread of those innumerous feet,
Down planted eagerly; the roll of wheels;
And hoof--spurn of the myriads of hot steeds,
All in same instant loosed,--the firm ground shook.

Then sounded loud their martial instruments;
And the vast armies sang together hymns
To Bel omnipotent, and the gods of war:
And, singing, they marched onward. Every eye,
In spirit--vision, saw the Titan walls,
Of the proud city flaming to the clouds;
And every ear the mighty roarings heard;
The crash and thunder of her over throw.

So went they all rejoicing on their way.


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Poem Submitted: Friday, October 8, 2010



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