The Fall Of Nineveh. Book The Fourth Poem by Edwin Atherstone

The Fall Of Nineveh. Book The Fourth

Sunrise: Assyrian soldiers from their tents
Come forth to worship; but, when from their knees
Arising, they look round, lo! where, at eve,
In peace the hosts of nations had encamped,
Voids, threatening war at hand! Wonder, and fear,
Filled all beholders. Whitherward had fled,
And silently, unseen, armies so vast,
Greatly they marvelled: but, forth looking soon--
Scarce two leagues from the wall, in the sun's glare
Fitfully seen, behold! tents numberless,
The glint of arms; and one tall gonfalon;
Vast seeming as Assyria's royal flag,
Yet strange to every eye--sign ominous
Of dread rebellion waked! Astonishment,
And terror, for a moment held them mute:
But, man to man; cohort to cohort, soon;
Legion to legion, sounded the alarm;
And nation unto nation sent it on,
Wondering, and crying aloud,--that now the air,
As with confusion of old Babel, rang;
And men seemed madness--stricken. On his knees
In worship, Salamenes heard the din--
Distant at first, and faint; yet, like the voice
Of fast approaching thunder, gathering strength,--
And, starting up, stood listening. But, anon,
Behind him, also, quickly rose, and swelled,
Like sounds of tumult--some confusion strange,
And widely spread, denoting. Speedily
Came tidings: he looked forth; and lo! the flag,
Signal of black rebellion, flaunting wide;
Portentous as the train of blazing star,
That threatens plagues to man! Smiting his breast,
Aloud he called; and, at the voice, came forth
Nebaioth from the tent. ``Behold! my friend;
Rebellion is afoot! A herald take.
Get thee forth quickly. Learn what means this stir;
And who their leader. Bid them break yon staff;
Cast down at once their arms; and on my knees
Will I their pardon pray for. Hasten then.
Unto the king go I.'' Speaking, he ran;
Leaped to his chariot; seized the reins, the scourge,
And swift as wind flew on. Nebaioth then,
A herald summoned. To their steeds they sprang:
And the fast--beating hoofs, along the ground,
Made running thunder. Meantime, in the camp
Of the revolted nations--by the sound
Of trumpets gathered--the chief leaders stood;
And, circling them--even as the ocean flood
Some little island rounds--the expectant host;
A sea of glittering arms. Above them all;
Bare headed; in his priestly robes attired;
On a low rising ground Belesis stood,
Awaiting silence. When the stir was hushed,
Toward heaven he turned his face; his arms uplift,
Praying aloud, and said: ``Thou glorious sun!
And ye, the bright Interpreters of Heaven!
Invisible, yet present still to prayer;
Your holiest influence pour upon us now:
Our minds enlighten, and our hearts make bold:
Let strength be in our arms; and, in our breasts,
Union, and brotherly love; so shall our cause
Go on triumphantly; the tyrant fall;
And the chained nations break their bonds, and live!
But chiefly now, we pray, our counsels guide:
For this our great emprise, a leader fit
We ask of you. Oh! in this people's hearts
Let your dread voices speak aloud his name;
That all in him Heaven's chosen one may know;
And to his rule submit!'' He paused awhile;
Lowly bowed down; across his breast, his arms
Reverently folded, and in silence prayed:
Then, rising, on his head the helm replaced;
And, with a voice so mightily uplift,
That, far and near, by thousands was he heard;
Thus, both to captains and to soldiers, spake:

``Not now for wordy strife, in long debate,
Here meet we. Iron--handed war comes on;
And we must grapple with him. Who that looks
On this great host need fear? yet, like the sand
Before the whirlwind, lacking wise control,
Might all our strength be driven. One mind, one hand,
Must rule us. Like a wide--spread shower of rain,
That falls unfeared, and powerless, were the hosts
Most numerous, whose several chiefs would own
None greater than themselves: but, like the cloud
That on a mountain bursts, and downward hurls
Trees, houses, rocks, in thunder to the plain,--
Is that great host, whose myriad arms are knit,
As in one giant arm; for one great blow;
Beneath one ruling mind. Then, name ye now
A captain, brave to lead the boldest swords;
A counsellor, to sway the wisest fit;
And him choose ye for leader. To his sway
Vow all a full obedience; for, in him,
The hopes of our great enterprise will live.
Soldiers--to you I speak.--Whom choose ye chief?''

Scarce had he ended, when, from that vast throng,
Burst instantly a long and deafening shout;
``Arbaces!'' Like some giant wave, foam--topped,
Rolled on the gathering uproar: to and fro,
Like thunder--peals among the mountains tost,
``Arbaces,'' still ``Arbaces;'' everywhere
``Arbaces'' was the universal cry.

His left hand resting on his sheathëd sword;
The banner--staff grasped loosely in his right;
Pale as a corpse a moment stood the Mede,
Powerless to move, or speak. Recovering soon,
Up the low mount he sprang; and, looking round,
Silence awaited. Then again the shouts
On all sides rose; again, and yet again;
Plumed helmets, swords, banners, and spears were waved.
But hark! a trumpet. On their panting steeds,
Nebaioth and the herald are at hand.
Before the sacred minister, the crowd
Gives way; and they pass on. Amid the chiefs
Arrived, the young Assyrian from his horse
Alighted not; but, glancing swiftly round
A proud and angry eye, thus sternly spake.
``What see I here? Rebellion in broad day?
And traitors in my friends of yesternight?
Are ye all crazed? or weary of your lives,
That ye seek death? too soon to fall on you,
Unless to gentleness the king be moved.
What can ye hope? Oh! ere it be too late,
Strike down yon standard, fling it to the flames;
And Salamenes--his own words I speak--
Will of the king, even on his knees, implore
Your undeservëd pardon.'' At these words,
Arbaces would have spoken; but, at once,
Starting with fury forth, Rabsaris thus;
``Pardon implore? Tell the foul tyrant this;
On his own knees let him of Heaven implore
Forgiveness, and of us; and be to hell
Spurned back, and mocked! We nothing beg of him:
On stubble stands his throne: his days are told:
His rich reward is nigh. Go tell him this:
And say it was his friend, Rabsaris, spake;
Rabsaris! Shout a thousand times the name;
Till he go mad.'' With interruption quick,
Nebaioth stayed him. ``Shameless traitor! peace!
Thine own death--sentence hast thou spoken now,
Heartless! and thankless! Spared he not thy life,
Forfeited justly? gave not back thy wealth;
And, in his mercy, to slight punishment,
Mere exile, doomed thee? Wretch! thy days are told;
Even by thyself; thy rich reward is nigh.
Fly, while thou may'st; or stay, and meet thy doom;
The fitter course, ungrateful! But on thee
Why waste I speech?'' To him Rabsaris thus,
Fire in his hollow eyes: ``Fit servant thou
For such a master! insolent, and false!
But I have nought with thee; nor heed thy words;
Senseless, and ignorant!'' No more to him
Nebaioth spake; but to the captains turned,
Conjuring them: ``Oh! ere it be too late,
Throw down your rebel arms! The king may hear
Your prayers repentant; and withhold the sword,
That, else, must cut you off. What hope have ye
'Gainst him to strive? What seek ye? Are ye all
By frenzy seized? or, with suggestion black,
Hath some vile traitor . . . . .'' There, impetuously,
Belesis stayed him. With his quivering hand
Up--pointed, he strode forward, crying aloud,
``Hold! and blaspheme not! To yon heaven look up.
There dwelleth He whom thou hast traitor named!
Ay! look, and wonder: for even thence it comes;
The voice that hath yon city's doom foretold;
The fate of him that on her throne doth sit.
Thither our prayers ascend; our hopes are there.
We bow not to thy king; but to his king:
And He hath bid us hope; and led us on;
And still will lead us, till the work be done;
And earth once more be free! Such hope is ours;
Such end we seek. Thus to the tyrant tell.''

He ceased, and backward went. Nebaioth then,
By those strange words, and that vehément voice,
O'erawed, awhile was silent. But, at length,
Thus answered him: ``How know ye 'tis from heaven;
The voice ye speak of? which of you hath heard;
Or who hath seen--'' Again the priest advanced,
Rebuking him. ``Pollute not thus our ears
With speech profane: the mysteries of heaven
Thou canst not read, unsanctified: not the less,
There are to whom the scroll of things to come
Hath been unrolled; and therein have they read;
Therefrom have taught. Join, therefore, thou with us;
Or take thy way, and say unto the king
What thou hast seen: but more we wish thee stay;
For virtuous art thou; of a noble mind,
And zealous for the right.'' Nebaioth then,
Looking around him, spake. ``Oh! friends, beware!
Ye stand upon a precipice's brow;
And are about to plunge! In time draw back!
Trust not in idle prophecies, and dreams,
That lure, but to destroy you! Cast your eyes
On yon great city, mistress of the world;
On yon resistless armies, that but wait
One word to tread you down! Ah! bid me fly,
And say unto the king that ye have seen
Your folly; and have cast your arms aside;
Have trampled on yon hateful sign of guilt;
And stooped unto his mercy: surely then
He will give ear to you; his wrath will change
To pity, and forgiveness. Harden not
Your hearts in pride; for dreadful is the ire
Of kings provoked. A force invincible,
Against you in a moment might he send;
And ye would perish; blindly perish all:
And for a dream! a prophecy! Oh heavens!
Wake from your stupor; pardon beg, and live!''

He spake in passion; on each well--known face,
Tears in his eyes, looking imploringly.
To answer him, Belesis started forth;
Almelon, also, raised his wrinkled hand:
Rabsaris, too, and Abdolonimus,
Motioned to speak: but now before him came
Arbaces: and, him seeing, all were still.
Then thus, with gentle words, the Mede began.

``Thy speech, not all offenceless, have we heard,
Even to the close; now hearken our reply;
For, through my mouth, the thoughts of all thou hear'st:
Not lightly to be changed; nor safe th' attempt;
Which, henceforth, therefore, I forewarn thee, shun.
For thee, Nebaioth, though our foe thou art;
A zealous, and a fierce one soon to be;
Yet, for an upright and a valiant youth,
We do confess thee; and would gladly join
The hands of love; and clasp thee to our hearts;
And call thee brother. In the silent night;
When on thy quiet bed thou liest down;
And passion is at rest, and reason wakes;
Then in thy soul inquire, if all this earth
For one man was created: ask again,
Who is this man? Is he more wise? more good?
Hath he the lion's valour? or the strength
Of Behemoth, that thus on prostrate lands
His foot he setteth? Question still again;
If thy Assyria were the Median's slave,
Wouldst thou not toil to shake the tyrant off?
Would not thy bosom burn as with a fire?
Wouldst thou not all things dare? bleed, die, to free
Thy country from the yoke? As for thyself
These things thou answer'st, so for us reply;
And we shall 'scape thy censure. For ourselves,
The lot is cast: be what may be th' event,
The struggle shall be made. The bondsman's breath
Too long we've drawn: we change, or breathe no more.
Nor think the fury of thy king we dread:
We know him vicious, sensual, gross, and vain;
And fitter, in a woman's garb, to sport
With wanton concubines, than head the fight:
Goodly to view; and with a soldier's limbs;
But hearted like a girl. Nor in yon host,--
Invincible, thou sayst, to tread us down,--
Doubt we, before to--morrow night, to find
Myriads of bosoms burning like our own;
And swords with ours to join: and, for ourselves--
Cast round thine eye--methinks no few are here;
Nor men with women's hearts. But, for th' event,
Rest that with Heaven! the struggle is for us;
Nor shall the sword, now wakened, sleep again,
Until Assyria's tyranny be quelled,
Or we in earth laid low!'' His vehement speech,
Fire flashing from his eyes, there ended he;
And from the listening multitude went up
Bursts of applause. Nebaioth once again,
His anger holding back, thus made reply.
``Is this the answer that the king must hear?
Oh! pause awhile! for your own doom ye speak.
Wake not the flame that will consume you all!
Stir not the lion when his wrath would sleep;
For, rising, he will rend you!'' At that word--
His dark cheek flushed, and fury in his eyes,--
Cried Abdolonimus: ``Fool us no more
With flame, and lions! Are we girls, or babes,
Thus to be scared with bugbears? Haste away;
And bear our answer to thy lion--king;
Whom we shall quickly stir; nor dread his rage,
Roar as he may. And, to astound thee more,
Even to his teeth I do defiance send:
Call him a glutton, drunkard, coward, beast!
And will upon him, all I say, make good,
With this good sword; if he dare wield his own,
And front me in the field.'' Nebaioth then:
``Enough, enough; I plead with you no more:
Your blood be on your heads! But whom, of all,
Name you the leader? for to him some words
Must yet be spoken.'' Stepping quickly forth,
To him Almelon: ``What thou hast to say,
Say unto all; nor guilefully'' . . . . Thus he,
Timidly cautious. But, to silence him,
Out spake Belesis. Pointing to the Mede,
``Behold our leader; by the general voice,
This day appointed; but, by Heaven, long since:
Our ruler now; and, ere long, to be thine;
When yon proud city shall be black with fire;
Her walls o'erthrown, and her foul tyrant slain;
Then thy knee, too, shall bend, and own his sway,
As now we own it.'' To Arbaces then
Nebaioth, turning, spake. ``Of all men here,
Of all men living, most unwillingly
On thee I speak the doom; for, with thy name,
Hath praise been ever joined. Henceforth, alas!
Reproach and infamy must blacken it!
Even in the sight of these, misled, and lost,
Do I proclaim thee traitor! By no law
Stand'st thou protected: he who seeks thy life,
Blameless, may take it--'' There, in deafening roar,
Ended his threatening: for, to madness fired,
Burst in the soldiers--with one dreadful voice,
Calling to slay him. On his startled steed
Unawed Nebaioth sat: but, instantly,
Arbaces stood beside him,--drew his sword,--
O'er all the din uplifted his great voice;
And, with the words of stern authority,
And aspect terrible, silenced every man.
Ashamed, they soon retired. Arbaces then
Thus to Nebaioth: ``Now, ere worse betide,
Haste--and be gone. Thy bidding hast thou done
Boldly, and well; and our firm answer heard.
Farther discourse were useless; and the time
Craves deeds, not words. Farewell.'' Then, looking round,
Two brothers he espied; of Lydian race;
Gentle, and valiant, both, and well beloved.
One hour had given them birth; and, as in age,
So, both in form, and feature were they matched,
That, which they saw, men doubted while they looked.
Their dress, their arms alike; alike their steeds;
Milk--white, without a spot, and swift as wind.
These seen, Arbaces called, and briefly thus:
``Abida, and Abdeel; with honor lead
This faithful servant hence. Ungenerous thoughts
Inflame the soldiers; and some ill, perchance,
Unguarded, might befall him. But with speed
Away; and tarry not.'' Nebaioth then,
Sorrow and anger on his darkened brow,
Wheeled round his horse; bowed silently, and went:
With him the herald; and, on either side,
Proud of their task, the youths. At once broke up
The mighty gathering;--chiefs and soldiers pressed,
To rank them for the battle. But, meantime,
Within the gorgeous chamber of the king,
Stood Salamenes; in his startled ear,
Of foul rebellion telling. From his bed
Upsprang the monarch: ``Bring my arms,'' he cried;
``I will myself go forth and trample them.
Arms--arms--bring arms. What! think they I am lost?
Or dead? or helpless? Let the priests be called;
They shall consult the gods. They think it quenched,
Because so long my splendor hath been hid
From vulgar eyes; but they shall find the blaze
Too dazzling for them yet. Fool have I been
To let my power thus sleep. The thundering God
Himself would be derided, did he leave
The lightnings slumbering in his idle hands.
But I am waked; and let them dread the bolts.''

So speaking, he his radiant arms 'gan don,
Burning to strike the blow. But, at the door,
Kneeling, with head bowed down, a priest appeared:
``Ha, Timna,'' cried the king, ``haste--offer up,
Thou and thy train, a sacrifice. A beast
Is come upon the earth; a dragon fierce;
And him Assyria's lion would destroy.
Ask of the gods the event; then, on the plain,
Seek me, and tell their will.'' Rose then the priest,
And answered him: ``Thy servants, king of kings!
Shall do thy bidding. But, what beast is this;
The dragon that--'' Him, with impetuous speech,
The monarch stopped; ``What idle talk is this!
A priest, and prophet thou, yet ask of me?
Away with thee: he lies on yonder plain,
Hundreds of thousands strong.'' The priest bent low;
Made answer none; but trembled, and withdrew.

All, save the head, in dazzling armour clad,
Stood now the king: but, when the helm was brought,
Aside he put it; and bade fetch the crown.
Then, placing on his brow the golden round,
Burning with gems,
Their monarch see. Haste--in the chariot place
My helmet for the battle; darts, and spears;
Bow, and full quiver: for, by Nimrod's shade!
The foremost in the bloody chase I'll be.''

Wondering, admiring, Salamenes gazed;
Then, while around the monarch's loins he girt
The falchion, sheathed as in one blazing gem,
With belt gem--starred, ``Oh! hadst thou ever thus
Been what the gods designed thee--'' But his words
The king broke short: ``Hold, hold; I know the rest.
That which I am, I am. Bring wine. One draught,
To take the weight from these uncustomed arms;
Then, to the field.'' He said, and drained the cup:
Yet, ere he went, made pause; and in his heart
Thus questioned. ``To the battle many speed
Who never will return! Shall I not see
My children, ere I leave them! To my queen
One word of kindness speak? perchance my last!
And the gay partners of my midnight joys,
Shall I not give to them one parting smile,
And bid them think of me when--fool! fool! fool!
They love thee not; and would but mock at thee.
On to the field! Who are not slain, will live;
And they who die, will rest; and nothing know.''

He said; and down the massive marble stairs
Strode, in his clanking arms. The chariot stood,
Bright as a flame, before the palace door,
Awaiting him; at every horse's head,
A pale--faced groom, who, with the impatient steed,
Struggled for mastery. As to the car
He 'gan to mount, lo! with her youngest child,
The queen Atossa from another door
Came forth; but knew him not; and onward walked.
The king beheld, and to himself thus said.
``She scorns me ever: yet, this day, methinks
I have not ill deserved. But woman's mind
Is past even rule of monarchs. Be it so!''
Speaking, he caught the reins--leaped up--a seat
At his left hand, to Salamenes signed--
And let the horses go. Beyond the gate,
Stand numerous cars; and horsemen by their steeds;
Awaiting till Assyria's royal sun,
So long eclipsed, shall from the portal blaze,
To dazzle mortal eyes. He comes at length:
The thunder of the wheels is heard within:
On its smooth hinges turning noiselessly,
Wide flies the gate: sounds them the tramp of hoofs:
And the rich pageant, like a bursting flame,
Strikes on their startled eyes. Four milk--white steeds,
In golden trappings; barbed in brass and gold,
Spring through the gate: the lofty chariot then,
Brass--sheathed, gold--plated thick, and burnished bright,
That, in the blaze of sunshine rolling on,
It seems embodied lightning. Brass the wheels,
Gold--burnished also; spoke, and massive nave;
The axles polished steel. Behind the car,--
Of clustered diamonds, flame a sun, horned moon,
And planets, each a quivering diamond.
Such was the chariot of the king of kings.

Himself in dazzling armour sits aloft,
And rules the fiery steeds. His shield of gold,
His spear, and helmet, bow, and quiver, rest
Within the roomy car. Resplendent thus,
Forth from the gate he comes; and every knee
Bends to the ground; and every voice cries out,
``Long live Sardanapalus, king of kings!
May the king live for ever!'' Thrice he smiles,
And waves his hand to all; and thrice the shouts
To heaven go up. Then, on his starting horse,
Springs every rider; every charioteer
Leaps to his car. Along the sounding streets
The pageant flames; upon the plain pours forth;
And louder evermore, and louder peals,
A deafening shout, ``The king! the king! the king!
The king of kings in his war--chariot comes!
Long live Sardanapalus, king of kings!
May the king live for ever!'' Like a god,
Through the low--bowing host the monarch drives;
High over all conspicuous, the bright crown,
Like an ethereal fire, through all the field
Flashing incessant light. From rank to rank,
From nation unto nation, he goes on;
And still all knees are bent, all voices raised,
As to a deity. Then swells his breast
With glory, and with shame, and high resolve:
With glory of his pomp and power; with shame
For years of sloth and guilt; with high resolve
For his whole life to come. Delusion bright!
Meantime Nebaioth, from his fruitless task
All sorrowful returning, saw far off
The dazzling chariot and the burning crown,
And cried: ``behold the king! to him the first
Shall the dread tale be told. Herald, sound out.''
Then with his trumpet did the herald blow:
The soldiers at his summons parted wide;
And they passed on. Them Salamenes saw,
Yet distant, and thus spake. ``Nebaioth comes,
Whom to the rebel chiefs this morn I sent:
Will the king hear his words?'' ``Assuredly;
Command him hither,'' was the prompt reply;
``Myself will hear him.'' To Nebaioth soon
The word was given, and swiftly he sped on.
Arrived at length, from off his horse he leaped;
Bowed to the earth; arose, and humbly said;
``May the king live for ever! Let my tongue
Bring not on me the wrath of earth's dread lord,
Because the words I speak displeasing be.''

To him the monarch: ``Say thou on: fear nought.
What men are these rebellious? What their strength?
Their leaders who? And what their mad design?''

Nebaioth then, low bowing, thus replied.
``Foremost of all, against the king of kings,
Arabians, Persians, Medes, their impious arms
Have dared uplift; but, of yet other lands,
No few there are, and desperate; blind, and deaf;
In prophecies trusting, and deceitful dreams;
This mighty city to the spoiler's hand
Fore--dooming, and her ashes to the winds:
Above them all, by universal voice,
This morn elected chief, is he whom, long,
My dearest friend, noble and true, I deemed;
Arbaces, king of Media. But, alas!
For a foul traitor, even in the sight
Of all his host, have I denounced him now.
Yet less in him the daring rebel shows
Than in the priest Belesis: he the minds
Of the fierce soldiers fires with wildest thoughts;
Prognosticating, pointing up to heaven;
Inciting, threatening: him, of all, I dread;
For, on his words the credulous people hang,
As on a voice from God. Their multitude,
I cannot sum; but many, and fierce they are;
Resolved, and insolent.'' While thus he spake,
The king, with gleaming eye, and countenance flushed,
Wrathful, astonished, listened: started then;
Stood in his chariot, and cried out, ``Away!
Sound all the trumpets! shake the flags on high!
Cry out aloud, `To battle every man!'
Away! away!'' Speaking, he raised the scourge:
But quickly Salamenes started up;
``Hold! hold!'' he said, ``and be not wroth, O king!
For that I counsel thee. Go not to fight;
For now men's hearts are troubled; and they look
To this side, and to that; and are afraid
For what may come: but, throughout all the host
Pass thou this day; and show thy countenance:
From out thy treasures let much gold be brought,
And given unto the soldiers; to each man
A piece of gold; so shall their hearts be thine,
And thou shalt vanquish all thine enemies.
Likewise, let heralds of all nations go
Through every legion, and cry out aloud,
`Thus saith Sardanapalus, king of kings:
Of every fighting man before the walls,
Or in the city, let not one depart;
But hither speed, to tread rebellion down;
For, on the morrow shall his wrath go forth,
And scatter all his foes.''' To him the king;
``Wise is thy counsel. Be it as thou sayst.''
At once, unanswering, from the royal car
Leaped Salamenes; and the heralds sought.
As he passed forth, the summoned priests drew nigh;
Before the chariot paused; kneeled, and bowed down
Their faces to the earth. To them the king:
``Arise ye holy men; and say aloud
That which the Gods have shown you; so all ears
May hear the will of Heaven.'' With joyful look,
Uprose the priests; and Timna spake aloud.
``O king, for ever live! be the king glad!
For, all his foes shall he quell utterly,
And scatter them like dust: the dragon's fangs
Shall he rend forth; shall break his iron scales;
Pour out his poisonous blood; and fling his bones
Down to the darksome pit!'' So boldly he;
And all that heard him, clapped the hand, and cried,
``Long live the king! may the king live for ever!''

But, nigh the car an Israelitish seer
Went fearlessly; his hand uplift, and spake.
``Give not, O king! unto the false one's tongue
Thine ear; nor let thy heart with pride be filled.
Jehovah hath his hand stretched over thee;
And over all thy people; for the sins
Which ye repent not. In the days gone by,
This wicked city, at the prophet's voice,
Repented; and the Lord her doom withheld:
So if ye also listen; and the ways
Of sin forsake; and unto Israel's God
Your proud hearts humble; haply, even yet,
The awful doom, pronounced, He will recall;
And ye may live: but, your iniquities
If ye repent not, and confess--behold!
The fierceness of His anger will go forth;
And ye will perish; and this Nineveh,
This great and glorious Nineveh; this queen
Of all the cities, will be overthrown;
And seen no more at all upon the earth.
King of Assyria, hearken to my words:
Forsake the path of thine iniquity:
To Israel's God cry ye unceasingly,--
Thou, and thy people all--that He may turn
His outstretched arm aside, and smite you not.
Beware the banquet! O'er thine enemies--
Even as these false ones, prophets not of God,
But of the Spirit accurs'd, and to thy harm
Have taught thee, and thy pride the more to lift--
Awhile thou may'st be victor: but--beware!
I have beheld; and lo! a banquet spread;
A midnight revelry; an eastern king,
With all his lords, and captains, and his hosts,
Rejoicing; and the women of the land,
With timbrel, harp, song, dance, and wanton wile,
Their hearts delighting: but behold! there came
The chariot, and the war--horse, and the sword,
Suddenly on them: with their blood the earth,
As with long rain, was steeped; and, with the slain,
As with the hailstones when the storm is loosed,
The plain was covered. After that, behold!
The floods upheaped against the city came;
The tempest, and the earthquake, and the fire:
And hosts like to the sands for multitude:
And, of that mighty city, not a stone
Upon another standing was there left!
King of Assyria! harden not thy heart;
But to the servant of the living God
Give ear; so may it yet be well with you.''

Thus having said, upon the king he looked
With eye of solemn warning; turned, and went.
Nor could the monarch answer; for those words,
And that dread aspect, held him motionless.
Confused he sat, and silent; in his breast,
Anger, and pride, and awe till then unknown,
Alternate ruling: but at length he spake.
``What man is this, who to Assyria's king
Evil hath threatened? whence, and who is he?''

Before him lowly bowed a priest, and said:
``O king of kings! a stranger in the land
Is he; unknown, and scorned; a wretched seer
Of that down--trodden Israel, who their God
Above Assyria's God in might extol;
Blaspheming: but as one possessed is he:
For, through the city, with uplifted hands,
These three days hath he gone, and cried aloud,
`Beware! beware! the day of wrath is nigh!
The day of vengeance on great Nineveh!
The sword, the flood, the earthquake, and the fire;
Have heard Jehovah's voice; and wait the sign!'
So hath he still cried out; and, as he cries,
The people laugh, and point, and mock at him.
Let not the king be troubled at his words.''

Thus having spoken, he bowed low; and stood,
Awaiting if, perchance, the king might speak.
But, in most strange bewilderment, long time
Sat the proud monarch, speechless; then, at length;
``Seer, or impostor, wondrous are his words;
And will not from me pass. Speed after him:
Bid him more heedfully his Gods consult,
And better augury find; so to the king
Well pleasing he would be. Within his hand
This jewel place: and, when the sun hath set,
Unto the palace let him come; and stand
Again before me; and from Israel's Gods,--
What Gods soe'er they be,--the answer speak.''

Thus saying, from his chariot he leaned down;
And, in the palm of the much wondering priest,
A flaming gem let fall: slacked then the reins;
And the steeds bounded on. But, toward the seer
The priests made speed: and, when their lord's command
They had fulfilled,--with proud and angry voice,
Thus spake the high priest Timna: ``Who art thou
That darest before the king of kings stand forth,
Presumptuous! in his royal ear to pour
Thy breath pestiferous? What words are these,
Infatuate! thou hast spoken, that have cast
A cloud upon his face? and knowest thou not
That, where Chaldea's high priest stands, thy tongue
Should never dare to wag? But thou hast got
Thy guerdon, and art satisfied. Beware!
For I can crush thee.'' With a look of hate,
Clenching the hand, and stamping with the foot,
He ended, turned, and went. Undauntedly,
To him the seer. ``Stay; hear me. For the words
That to the king I spake, with God, not man,
Shall I account: but, for this gaudy gem,--
My guerdon, as thou sayst,--I sought it not;
Nor covet it. My recompense must be
Far higher; and from higher hand. 'Tis thine,
If thou wilt stoop to lift it.'' Saying thus,
Upon the ground the flaming stone he threw:
Turned quickly, went his way, and looked not back.

Astonished, a few hasty strides advanced
The incensed high priest; but stopped; shot after him
Looks of black hate; then muttered, ``Let him go!
What he hath here thrown down, shall him throw down:
Thou, little blood--red stone, shalt be the type
Of his own blood, so cast upon the earth,
As thou by him wert cast.'' That said, he stooped,
And lifted up the gem. The king, meantime,
Flew o'er the plain; and everywhere the cries,
Unceasing, tore the air. But, in his heart,
Oft rose a pang, when on the words he thought
Of that strange Hebrew: yet, upon his brow,
No cloud he suffered; but spake cheerfully;
Fame, to the valiant; to the needy, wealth;
Power, rank, to the ambitious; unto all,
Eternal honor promising. Oft, too,
He thought upon the banquet, and the joys
Of long night--revel. ``But one parting night!
To--morrow comes the battle: I may fall:
Then will these last and precious hours be lost;
And all my glory vanish like the smoke.
But, that stern prophet stands before me still,
And checks me with his eye. Pale fears, begone!
Music, and love, and wine, this night I'll have,
Though, ere the next, come death!'' So, all the day,
From host to host he went: but, ere the sun
His weary horses in the earth's dark shade
Drove down to slumber--through the palace gates
He passed; from his tired limbs the armour doffed;
Bathed, and the banquet sought. But, from his toil,
No rest found Salamenes: through the camp,
From nation unto nation, still he flew:
With prospect of great honor, fame, and rank,
The chiefs inciting; with the promised gold,
Cheering the soldiers. Nor in vain he toiled;
For many a wavering mind, unto the king
He turned again; and many a lukewarm heart
Inflamed with zeal; that, for the morning's fight
They thirsted. Yet not all; for, when deep night,
O'er the vast plain her darkening veil had drawn,--
The hosts expected by the Medes set forth.
Of other armies, also, in small bands,
Went many thousands; moving cautiously:
Some, for their homes departing; some, to escape
The perils of the battle; most, to join,
With heart and hand, the banner of the free.

But, where the Bactrians camped; and all the hosts
From Sogdiana, northward, to the south
Of Arachosia, by the banks of Ind;
Ahab, the Bactrian leader, to his tent
The chiefs convened; and boldly thus began.

``What shall we now? Our year of servitude
Is past; and we are free. What means the king?
The service we consented to, is paid;
What would he more? For us what hath he done;
For Arachosia, Sogdiana, what;
That we should love him, and our blood pour out,
To do him service? No! the love we owe,
Is such as, to the lion, owes his prey;
Such as the vanquished to their conqueror owe:
And such, while he can force it, will we give;
Not longer. Why our services claimed he?
Because he was the mightier; and his hosts
More numerous far. But lo! his strength is shorn:
Armies, once his, start up his enemies:
What was his strength, becomes his weakness now:
That which upheld, now threats to drag him down.
Well then? what claim to service hath he left?
What asks he? Gain to him, great loss to us,
That we the Babylonians, Persians, Medes,
Arabians; and of many a land beside,
In mortal strife should meet. What enmity
To these owe we? As hither we came on,
All were our friends: shall we requite them thus?
For what? for whom? We are prepared for march,
Not battle; and our wives and children look,
To see us home. Shall we remain to die,
Or put our friends to death, when we may turn
Toward our own hearths our unmolested feet;
And clasp our wives and children in our arms;
Our sisters, mothers, and our grey--haired sires,
Whose feeble limbs now miss their rightful staffs,
And whose dim eyes still overflow with tears,
Thinking of us? Who, for the high renown
Of dying here to uphold Assyria's throne,
Now falling, is ambitious,--let him stay,
And perish, and be glorious: but, for us,
Who are not greatly covetous of praise,
So bought; nor feel much debt of gratitude;
Let us go rather on our homeward road,
Inglorious though the path, than win renown
By lying on Assyria's battle--field,
Even mid a thousand foes. Ye have my mind:
If this my counsel please--send forth the word;
And, by the midnight hour, let all the host
Stand ready for the march: in van the foot;
And--bulwark 'gainst pursuit--the horsemen all,
And chariots, in the rear.'' With clamorous din,
All cried to strike the tents, and journey back;
For, with the thoughts of home, their hearts were sick;
Tears filled their eyes. Impatient to be gone,
Then to the door they pressed; but, with loud voice,
The Arachosian leader, Azareel,
Called on them, and they turned. ``Stay; stay, my friends!
And think again. Oh! whither would ye fly,
Dishonored and debased? not to your wives;
For they would spurn you back, and hiss at you:
Not to your fathers; they would scoff at you:
Not to your children; they would blush for you,
Deserting thus your friends. Oh! are ye lost
So poorly in the childish love of home,
That glory, honor, all which men hold dear,
Seem worthless in your eyes? and would ye, then,
Like trembling thieves, at midnight steal away;
When on the morrow may the trumpets sound;
And twice a million swords and bucklers clash,
In strife for half the world; which, as you act,
From bondage may be freed, or worse be bound!
What! think ye, if the tyrant conquer here,
That even in farthest Ind ye may be safe?
Think ye to leave him when he needs you most;
Yet have his thanks and love? Or, can you deem
The contest doubtful: and so matched the force,
That ye in safe neutrality may rest;
Of peace assured, without the cost of war;
Left, wisely, to your friends? Ah! hope it not!
Folly and baseness only so could dote!
Your choice is twain; against, or for the king:
For him to combat, and be meanly safe;
Fettering, and fettered more; and knowing still
That, had ye not been base, ye had been free--
Or, else, against him; to your last red drop,
Standing in fight for liberty, or death;
For glory, or the grave! Here take your choice;
No other course ye have, save what is foul,
Foolish and dangerous?'' With impassioned tone,
Thus warned he; yet, his words they heeded not;
But cried aloud to strike the tents, and fly.

Still, he again with fervency called out,
Conjuring them; and Japhet, by his side,
His only son, who, for his father, begged
Their patient hearing. But, with words of mirth
They answered him; and hurried from the tent.

Them following quick, with stern uplifted voice,
Thus Azareel. ``Fly, fly, ye valiant men!
Your wives are waiting for you: get you gone,
While yet 'tis dark, and safe to steal away:
But, speed ye; for, to--morrow, swords will clash,
And blood will stream. Oh shame! eternal shame!
How will your names be blackened by this deed!
How will you curse yourselves, and be accursed!
Friend--leavers! pleasure--seekers! in the hour
Of trouble and of death! Haste! haste, brave men!''

So he; while, loudly laughing at his zeal,
On went the mirthful captains; eager all
For joys of home, peace, feasting, dance, and love.

Loudest of all, the taunting laugh was heard
Of Nahor; for, in place of Azareel,
The faithful dolt! he now would hold the rule.

With angry brow, the Arachosian stood,
Listening the laugh, the merry jest, or scoff;
Then, when a silence came, to Japhet thus:
``They're gone; and will the minds of all the host
Strive to seduce! But, let us after them;
And, whom we may, to better thoughts incline:
All may not yet be lost.'' At swift pace then
They followed, and, the rearmost captains soon
O'ertaking, with a love of nobler things,
Though vainly, strove to inspire them. At the feast,
Amid his beauteous concubines, meantime,
Sardanapalus sat; and revelled high;
And thought no more of treason, or of war.
Music, and wine, and love, his heart inflamed;
His eye shone vividly, his cheek was flushed:
Loud was his laughter, jocund his discourse;
Yet, many a whisper in some favored ear
He breathed; an amorous glance oft cast around
On eyes that glanced again. But, suddenly,
Waked in his mind remembrance of the seer,
And that strange warning. Darkened grew his brow;
And silence came upon him. Roused at length,
``Call in the Israelitish priest,'' he cried;
``Send the musicians hence. And you, fair dames,
Haste to the garden, while yet sunset gleams,
And gather flowers. I'll come to you anon.
Weave for my brow a regal coronal
Of ivy, twined with jessamine and rose;
For I will be God Bacchus, this sweet night;
The stars shall light our dance. Azubah, thou,
Abiah too, and Ephah, stay with me.''

Swift, at the word, upsprang light feet; bright eyes,
And ardent faces, for a moment glowed,
And passed away: then, in the fragrant air,
Sweet voices rose--died off, and all was still.

Before the frowning monarch came the seer,
Yet bowed not, nor spake word. With angry eye,
The king awhile in silence on him looked;
Then sternly thus. ``What man art thou, bold priest!
Who of the king hast dared to make thy mock?
What higher guerdon, sayst thou, must be thine?
And whose that higher hand must give it thee?''

One step the seer advanced; toward Heaven his arm
Uplift; and spake. ``My guerdon is with God!
HIS that far mightier hand must give it me.
Not for the love of gold, or precious stones,
Came I before thee; but from Israel's Lord'' . . .

``Hold!'' sternly interrupting, cried the king;
``And heed, bold prophet! lest that mightier hand
Come not to save thee, when this weaker falls,
To crush thee into dust! No answer, priest:
And lift not here thy face unto thy Gods.
Guerdon enough for thee had been one word
Upon thy dog bestowed; yet thou must prate
Of higher hands; and scornfully throw back
A monarch's gift. But, now make swift amend;
With better augury than was thy first;
And I forgive thee. Fill a golden cup,
Azubah; and bestow it on the seer:
And, when he hath the sparkling juice drained down,
Within his bosom let him place the gold;
And think upon the king. For me, too, fill
A goblet. Nay, a wider, deeper bowl;
And to the brim.'' Azubah then arose,
Kneeled down, and said, ``I pray thee, drink not now;
Lest that the priest incense thee; and thy wrath
Be heated by the draught.'' With smiling face,
The monarch raised her, and himself filled up,
With ruby wine, a goblet to the brim.
``Bear thou,'' he said, ``a cup unto the priest:
And have for me no fear. Prophet, thy cheek
Is ghastly as a death upon a tomb:
But, drink thou deep of that celestial blood,
And it will make thee ruddy as the morn,
And cheerful as the lark; and brighten, too,
Thy gloomy eye; that clearer may'st thou read
The will of the great gods. Stretch, then, thy hand;
Drink; and be strong.'' He ended; took himself
The fatal bowl, and drank. Yet still the seer
Obeyed him not; but, with averted head,
And hand repellant, signed away the cup.
To him the monarch; ``What confounds thee thus?
Dost fear in presence of the king to drink?
But, 'tis himself commands thee. Drain it off;
Then shalt thou read a happier augury
Than the foul nightmare--vision of this morn.''

To him, with solemn tone, the pale--browed seer.
``The wine--cup never yet hath touched my lips;
Nor fevered my calm eye, to make it see,
For truth, false, pleasing lies; nor shall it now;
For, unto Heaven a solemn oath I swore;
And will not on my soul bring perjury.''

Staring upon him, sat the astonished king:
Then, on the ivory table, gem inlaid,
Smote with his hand. ``What? how? art mad!'' he cried:
``Thou most audacious man! A king hears not
Of oath forbidding what himself hath bid!
What matter unto me thy vows insane?
Or if as hell thou'rt black with perjuries?
Infatuate! Yet on this I waste not words:
Drink, or refrain, poor lunatic! but speak:
Hast thou with nobler offerings sought thy Gods?
And what the answer? Tell me not again
That fire, and water, menace. Am not I
Sardanapalus, of all kings the king?
Do not all nations at my throne bow down?
And, by the babbling stream, and sputtering flame,
Shall I be threatened? and the banquet too?
Thou foolish seer! bethink thee who I am;
And prophesy more wisely.'' Thus spake he,
Flushed with the draught: yet still again he laid
His hand upon the goblet: but the seer,
Advancing, said aloud, ``Forbear, O king!
Touch never more the poison of the cup;
For, as I live, and as thou livest--'' ``Wretch!''
Roared out the king; upstarting, hurling down
The ringing goblet; ``dar'st to tutor me?
Thy life may answer it! take heed; take heed!''

But, undeterred, the seer prepared to speak;
When, timidly, upon his robe, her hand
Azubah laid; and, with faint, tremulous voice,
Thus whispered, ``Oh! incense not so the king,
Thou holy man! for dreadful is his wrath;
And deadly now, with cursëd fumes of wine
Inflamed: for his sake, as for thine, be wise;
And with soft words his wrathful spirit soothe.''

So she, with looks imploring, as with words.
But, on her pale, bright face the prophet gazed;
Then thrust her from him. ``Woman!'' he exclaimed;
``Get back, and touch me not! I know thee now;
The harlot that Rabsaris once called child!
Ay! let it sink thee! But, no words are mine
To soothe the guilty in his moody ire:
I stand to tell the doom of wrathful Heaven;
And for man's anger heed not. Hear me, king.
The avenging arm is stretched to punish thee!
The banquet, and the earthquake, and the fire,
Ruin will bring upon thee! to the Mede
Thy crown and realm will pass! Yet, unto God,
To Israel's God, turn humbly: thy great guilt
Confess; and purify from sin the land;
So may thy soul yet live!'' As from a blow,
Beneath his scornful eye Azubah shrank;
And trembled while he spake: her burning face
Then covered with her hands; sobbed out aloud;
And sank upon the floor. From out his den
As glares a hungry lion; hearing nigh
The growl of tiger o'er his bloody meal;
So, on the Hebrew, death--like pale, awhile,
With fury inexpressible glared the king:
Suddenly then upstarted; at a bound,
Maniac--like, with outstretched arms, sprang on;
Seized; dashed him headlong. On the marble floor
The body fell; rebounded; fell again:
From head to foot with a sharp quiver shook;
Stretched--stiffened--and lay still. A piercing shriek
Rang through the hall. Death--white, with trembling lips,
And sinking limbs, Abiah hastened out,
And Ephah, sick with horror; turning still
To look on what they feared. But, from the floor,
Her face like moon--lit stone, Azubah rose:
Behind the monarch tottered; grasped his robe;
Spake not, nor looked; but, trembling head to foot,
With one hand, brow and temples tightly clasped;
And, with the other, gently strove to draw
The murderer from the slain. Pale, breathless, weak,
Amazed, with quivering lip, the monarch stood,
And stared upon the corse. The corse on him,
With open mouth, and ghastly, glaring eye,
Seemed staring back again. Azubah still
Drew at his robe; yet could not stir him thence;
So fixed with horror stood he: but, at length,
From his racked breast these faltering words broke forth.

``What deed is this! Am I awake? Lo! then,
Already is one threatening come to pass!
The banquet!--ha! the banquet! this it is
He bade me shun; the poison of the cup!
But he was crazed, and insolent.--Fool! fool!
Why did he dare me when my blood was hot?
What could he hope? And my Azubah, too,
He called a harlot; thrust her to the earth.
Caitiff! he had his due. But not from me;
Not from my arm the judgment should have fallen,
If ever fallen. A horrid deed is this!
Let us away. To--morrow shall he have--
To--morrow? ha! I do bethink me now:
A hundred thousand, now alive, may have
Their funeral to--morrow. Yet this one
More shocks me than--. I will not think upon't!
The wine--cup, and these lips, no more shall meet;
Or but as strangers, coldly. Come away.''
He ceased; upon the corse a moment looked;
Shivered, and gasped; took then her arm, and went.

'Twas midnight now: the lately risen moon,
With pallid face, as if unwillingly,
Seemed walking heaven's great highway. On the plain
Gleamed faintly the moist herbage: shadows drear
And long, from lofty and umbrageous trees,
Slept on the earth: pale light, and dreamy shade
Covered the distant city; her huge towers,
Like a Titanic Watch, all standing mute;
And, in the centre, like the spectre--form
Of perished Saturn, or some elder god,
The dim vast mound. 'Neath tent, or on bare earth,
In sleep profound the insurgent armies lay;
Some, of the battle dreaming; some, of love;
Of home, and smiling wives and infants, some:
The chase, some urged; some, at the wine--board sat;
Drinking unmeasured draughts; yet thirsting still.

But, wakeful, at the entrance of his tent,
Sat their great leader, silent, lost in thought
On what the morn might bring. Few paces off,
Wrapped in his mantle, on the dewy grass
Stretched as in sleep, but, with wide opened eyes,
On the stars gazing, lay the soldier priest.
Deep was the hush. At length, Arbaces stirred;
To this side and to that, inclined the head,
Listening. A sound he heard, or seemed to hear,
As of a torrent--flood amid the hills;
Far off, unheard till then. Gently he rose;
Fitted behind his ears both hollowed palms;
Drew in long breath; and yet more eagerly,
Caught at the doubtful murmur. Suddenly,
Shading his brow, across the spacious plain,
Long, earnestly, he gazed: twice closed his eyes,
And opened them; then spake. ``Belesis, up:
Look forth, I pray thee; for the gleam of arms
Far off, methinks I see.'' Upsprang the priest;
Looked out intentively awhile, then thus.
``So long with yon bright host have I communed,
That now mine eyes are dazzled, and see ill.
Where thou dost point, the Bactrians are encamped,
And those from Sogdiana to the south:
Least likely they of all, with zeal o'erhot,
Night--onset, for the tyrant, to commence;
And, if they come, be sure, as friends they come.''

Still was he speaking, when Arbaces thus,
Smiting upon his thigh: ``By all the Gods!
It is the enemy coming! Sound the alarm!''
But instantly a distant voice replied,
``Hold! hold! blow not the trumpet; we are friends.''
Came then the tramp of steeds; loud breathings soon;
And, in few moments, halted near the tent
Three panting horses. Lightly to the earth
The riders leaped; and toward Arbaces walked.
With hand upon the hilt prepared stood he;
But, when they nigher drew, he, too, advanced;
Touched on the arm the foremost, and exclaimed:
``Abdeel? What brings thee here? And who be these?''
Closer upon them looking while he spake,
At once he knew them; ``Japhet? Azareel?
Welcome, most welcome; for your faces show,
And your warm grasp, that not as foes ye come.
But answer quickly; what is yonder host,
At midnight marching? Are they friends, or foes?''

Then Azareel: ``Foes are they, and yet friends:
Friends, that not foes; foes, that not friends they be.
They will not, against us, the tyrant aid;
Nor us against the tyrant; but their homes,
Their ease inglorious, preferable hold
To noblest ends, by toil and danger won.
We, with some hundreds of a better mind,
Whom at the outskirts of your camp we left,--
Of all the Eastern armies, come alone,
To aid your glorious struggle: but the rest,
A hundred thousand fighting men thrice told,
Now journey homeward.'' ``Back shall they be turned,''
Exclaimed the priest; ``nor see as yet their wives:
For, or against us, shall they come again:
But, either way, victors we still shall be;
For it is written; and must come to pass.''

Arbaces then: ``Oh! had but nobler thoughts
Moved them with us to stand! then had escaped
Myriads, that now will fall: for contest hard,
And long must be, such disproportioned strength
Ere we can vanquish: nor their labor light,
Our fewer numbers, with strong spirit armed,
To utterly o'ercome. But, in the gods
Our trust is; who our foes can put to flight,
Though numerous as the atoms of the dust
That follows on their trampling! Enter now
My tent, I pray you; and abide till morn:
For, with the dawn must we be stirring all;
And midnight is gone by.'' Thus he; and drew
The curtain of the tent that they might pass.
But Azareel replied, ``Our followers wait
Till we return; and we must hasten back.
Not less, for thy kind bidding, take our thanks.''

To them Arbaces, as their hands he grasped,
And bade adieu: ``Our thanks, the rather, take;
For that, amid a mean and selfish host,
Ye stood the only noble: fare ye well.''

A like salute made they; and soon were gone.
The hollow trample of their coursers' feet
Died quickly off; and all again was still.

A little while Belesis and the chief
Stood yet in low discourse. To heaven, at length,
The priest upraised his arms, and pallid brow;
Praying in silence: then around him girt
His mantle; and, with face still toward the sky,
Stretched on the earth his limbs. A moment yet
Arbaces stood, and on the camp looked round;
With palms close pressed, then heavenward turned his eyes;
Drew softly back the curtain of the tent;
Bowed low his lofty head; and passed within.

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