The Flight

In the far east, as viewless tides of time
Drew on the drifting shallop of the Dawn,
A fringe of gold went rippling up the gray,
And breaking rosily on cliff and spur,
Still left the vale in shadow. While the fog
Folded the camp of Assur, and the dew
Yet shook in clusters on the new green leaf,
And not a bird had dipt a wing in air,
The restless captain, haggard with no sleep,
Stept over the curved body of his slave,
And thridding moodily the dingy tents,
Hives packed with sleepers, stood within the grove,
And in the cool, gray twilight gave his thought
Wings; but however wide his fancies flew,
They circled still the figure of his dream.

He sat: before him rose the fluted domes
Of Nineveh, his city, and he heard
The clatter of the merchants in the booths
Selling their merchandise: and now he breathed
The airs of a great river, sweeping down
Past carven pillars, under tamarisk boughs,
To where the broad sea sparkled: then he groped
In a damp catacomb, he knew not where,
By torchlight, hunting for his own grim name
On some sarcophagus: and as he mused,
From out the ruined kingdom of the Past
Glided the myriad women he had wronged,
The half-forgotten passions of his youth;
Dark-browed were some, with haughty, sultry eyes,
Imperious and most ferocious loves;
And some, meek blondes with lengths of flaxen hair—
Daughters of Sunrise, shaped of fire and snow,
And Holofernes smiled a bitter smile
Seeing these spectres in his revery,
When suddenly one face among the train
Turned full upon him—such a piteous face,
Blanched with such anguish, looking such reproach
So sunken-eyed and awful in its woe,
His heart shook in his bosom, and he rose
As if to smite it, and before him stood
Bagoas, the bondsman, bearing in his arms
A jar of water, while the morning broke
In dewy splendor all about the grove.

Then Holofernes, vext that he was cowed
By his own fantasy, strode back to camp,
Bagoas following, sullen, like a hound
That takes the color of his master's mood.
And with the troubled captain went the shapes
Which even the daylight could not exorcise.

"Go, fetch me wine, and let my soul make cheer,
For I am sick with visions of the night.
Some strangest malady of breast and brain
Hath so unnerved me that a rustling leaf
Sets my pulse leaping. 'T is a family flaw,
A flaw in men else flawless, this dark spell:
I do remember when my grandsire died,
He thought a lying Ethiop he had slain
Was strangling him; and, later, my own sire
Went mad with dreams the day before his death.
And I, too? Slave! go fetch me seas of wine,
That I may drown these fantasies— no, stay!
Ransack the camps for choicest flesh and fruit,
And spread a feast within my tent this night,
And hang the place with garlands of new flowers;
Then bid the Hebrew woman, yea or nay,
To banquet with us. As thou lov'st the light,
Bring her; and if indeed the gods have called,
The gods shall find me sitting at my feast
Consorting with a daughter of the gods!"

Thus Holofernes, turning on his heel
Impatiently; and straight Bagoas went
And spoiled the camps of viands for the feast,
And hung the place with flowers, as he was bid;
And seeing Judith's servant at the well,
Gave his lord's message, to which answer came:
"O what am I that should gainsay my lord?"
And Holofernes smiled within, and thought:
"Or life or death, if I should have her not
In spite of all, my mighty name would be
A word for laughter among womankind."

"So soon!" thought Judith. "Flying pulse, be still!
O Thou who lovest Israel, give me strength
And cunning such as never woman had,
That my deceit may be his stripe and scar,
My kisses his destruction. This for thee,
My city, Bethulîa, this for thee!"

And thrice that day she prayed within her heart,
Bowed down among the cushions of the tent
In shame and wretchedness; and thus she prayed:
"O save me from him, Lord! but save me most
From mine own sinful self: for, lo! this man,
Though viler than the vilest thing that walks,
A worshpper of fire and senseless stone,
Slayer of children, enemy of God—
He, even he, O Lord, forgive my sin,
Hath by his heathen beauty moved me more
Than should a daughter of Judæa be moved,
Save by the noblest. Clothe me with Thy love,
And rescue me, and let me trample down
All evil thought, and from my baser self
Climb up to Thee, that aftertimes may say:
She tore the guilty passion from her soul,—
Judith the pure, the faithful unto death."

Half seen behind the forehead of a crag
The evening-star grew sharp against the dusk,
As Judith lingered by the curtained door
Of her pavilion, waiting for Bagoas:
Erewhile he came, and led her to the tent
Of Holofernes; and she entered in,
And knelt before him in the cresset's glare
Demurely, like a slave girl at the feet
Of her new master, while the modest blood
Makes protest to the eyelids; and he leaned
Graciously over her, and bade her rise
And sit beside him on the leopard-skins.
But Judith would not, yet with gentlest grace
Would not; and partly to conceal her blush,
Partly to quell the riot in her breast,
She turned, and wrapt her in her fleecy scarf,
And stood aloof, nor looked as one that breathed,
But rather like some jewelled deity
Taken by a conqueror from its sacred niche,
And placed among the trappings of his tent—
So pure was Judith.

For a moment's space
She stood, then stealing softly to his side,
Knelt down by him, and with uplifted face,
Whereon the red rose blossomed with the white:
"This night, my lord, no other slave than I
Shall wait on thee with fruits and flowers and wine.
So subtle am I, I shall know thy wish
Ere thou canst speak it. Let Bagoas go
Among his people: let me wait and serve,
More happy as thy handmaid than thy guest."

Thereat he laughed, and, humoring her mood,
Gave the black bondsman freedom for the night.
Then Judith moved, obsequious, and placed
The meats before him, and poured out the wine,
Holding the golden goblet while he ate,
Nor ever past it empty; and the wine
Seemed richer to him for those slender hands.
So Judith served, and Holofernes drank,
Until the lamps that glimmered round the tent
In mad processions danced before his gaze.

Without, the moon dropt down behind the sky;
Within, the odors of the heavy flowers,
And the aromas of the mist that curled
From swinging cressets, stole into the air;
And through the mist he saw her come and go,
Now showing a faultless arm against the light,
And now a dainty sandal set with gems.
At last he knew not in what place he was.
For as a man who, softly held by sleep,
Knows that he dreams, yet knows not true from false,
Perplext between the margins of two worlds,
So Holofernes, flushed with the red wine.

Like a bride's eyes, the eyes of Judith shone,
As ever bending over him with smiles
She filled the generous chalice to the edge;
And half he shrunk from her, and knew not why,
Then wholly loved her for her loveliness,
And drew her close to him, and breathed her breath;
And once he thought the Hebrew woman sang
A wine-song, touching on a certain king
Who, dying of strange sickness, drank, and past
Beyond the touch of mortal agony—
A vague tradition of the cunning sprite
That dwells within the circle of the grape.
And thus he heard, or fancied that he heard:—

The small green grapes in countless clusters grew,
Feeding on mystic moonlight and white dew
And mellow sunshine, the long summer through;

Till, with faint tremor in her veins, the Vine
Felt the delicious pulses of the wine;
And the grapes ripened in the year's decline.

And day by day the Virgins watched their charge;
And when, at last, beyond the horizon's marge,
The harvest-moon droopt beautiful and large,

The subtle spirit in the grape was caught,
And to the slowly dying Monarch brought,
In a great cup fantastically wrought,

Whereof he drank; then straightway from his brain
Went the weird malady, and once again
He walked the Palace, free of scar or pain—

But strangely changed, for somehow he had lost
Body and voice: the courtiers, as he crost
The royal chambers, whispered—The King's Ghost!

"A potent medicine for kings and men,"
Thus Holofernes; "he was wise to drink.
Be thou as wise, fair Judith." As he spoke,
He stoopt to kiss the treacherous soft hand
That rested like a snow-flake on his arm,
But stooping reeled, and from the place he sat
Toppled, and fell among the leopard-skins:
There lay, nor stirred; and ere ten beats of heart,
The tawny giant slumbered.

Judith knelt
And gazed upon him, and her thoughts were dark;
For half she longed to bid her purpose die—
To stay, to weep, to fold him in her arms,
To let her long hair loose upon his face,
As on a mountain-top some amorous cloud
Lets down its sombre tresses of fine rain.
For one wild instant in her burning arms
She held him sleeping; then grew wan as death,
Relaxed her hold, and starting from his side
As if an asp had stung her to the quick,
Listened; and listening, she heard the moans
Of little children moaning in the streets
Of Bethulîa, saw famished women pass,
Wringing their hands, and on the broken walls
The flower of Israel dying.

With quick breath
Judith blew out the tapers, all save one,
And from his twisted girdle loosed the sword,
And grasping the huge hilt with her two hands,
Thrice smote the Prince of Assur as he lay,
Thrice on his neck she smote him as he lay,
And from the brawny shoulders rolled the head
Winking and ghastly in the cresset's light;
Which done, she fled into the yawning dark,
There met her maid, who, stealing to the tent,
Pulled down the crimson arras on the corse,
And in her mantle wrapt the brazen head,
And brought it with her; and a great gong boomed
Twelve, as the women glided past the guard
With measured footstep: but outside the camp,
Terror seized on them, and they fled like wraiths
Through the hushed midnight into the black woods,
Where, from gnarled roots and ancient, palsied trees,
Dread shapes, upstarting, clutched at them; and once
A nameless bird in branches overhead
Screeched, and the blood grew cold about their hearts.
By mouldy caves, the hooded viper's haunt,
Down perilous steeps, and through the desolate gorge,
Onward they flew, with madly streaming hair,
Bearing their hideous burden, till at last,
Wild with the pregnant horrors of the night,
They dashed themselves against the City's gate.

The hours dragged by, and in the Assur camp
The pulse of life was throbbing languidly,
When from the outer waste an Arab scout
Rushed pale and breathless on the morning watch
With a strange story of a Head that hung
High in the air above the City's wall—
A livid Head, with knotted, snake-like curls—
And how the face was like a face he knew,
And how it turned and twisted in the wind,
And how it stared upon him with fixt orbs,
Till it was not in mortal man to stay;
And how he fled, and how he thought the Thing
Came bowling through the wheat-fields after him.
And some that listened were appalled, and some
Derided him; but not the less they threw
A furtive glance toward the shadowy wood.

Bagoas, among the idlers, heard the man,
And quick to bear the tidings to his lord,
Ran to the tent, and called, "My lord, awake!
Awake, my lord!" and lingered for reply.
But answer came there none. Again he called,
And all was still. Then, laughing in his heart
To think how deeply Holofernes slept
Wrapt in soft arms, he lifted up the screen,
And marvelled, finding no one in the tent
Save Holofernes, buried to the waist,
Head foremost in the canopies. He stoopt,
And drawing back the damask folds beheld
His master, the grim giant, lying dead.

As in some breathless wilderness at night
A leopard, pinioned by a falling tree,
Shrieks, and the echoes, mimicking the cry,
Repeat it in a thousand different keys
By lonely heights and unimagined caves,
So shrieked Bagoas, and so his cry was caught
And voiced along the vast Assyrian lines,
And buffeted among the hundred hills.
Then ceased the tumult sudden as it rose,
And a great silence fell upon the camps,
And all the people stood like blocks of stone
In some deserted quarry; then a voice
Blown through a trumpet clamored: He is dead!
The Prince is dead! The Hebrew witch hath slain
Prince Holofernes! Fly, Assyrians, fly!

As from its lair the mad tornado leaps,
And, seizing on the yellow desert sands,
Hurls them in swirling masses, cloud on cloud,
So, at the sounding of that baleful voice,
A panic seized the mighty Assur hosts,
And flung them from their places.
With wild shouts
Across the hills in pale dismay they fled,
Trampling the sick and wounded under foot,
Leaving their tents, their camels, and their arms,
Their horses, and their gilded chariots.
Then with a dull metallic clang the gates
Of Bethulîa opened, and from each
A sea of spears surged down the arid hills
And broke remorseless on the flying foe—
Now hemmed them in upon a river's bank,
Now drove them shrieking down a precipice,
Now in the mountain-passes slaughtered them.
Until the land, for many a weary league,
Was red, as in the sunset, with their blood.
And other cities, when they saw the rout
Of Holofernes, burst their gates, and joined
With trump and banner in the mad pursuit.
Three days before those unrelenting spears
The cohorts fled, but on the fourth they past
Beyond Damascus into their own land.

So, by God's grace and this one woman's hand,
The tombs and temples of the Just were saved;
And evermore throughout fair Israel
The name of Judith meant all noblest things
In thought and deed; and Judith's life was rich
With that content the world takes not away.
And far-off kings, enamored of her fame,
Bluff princes, dwellers by the salt sea-sands,
Sent caskets most laboriously carved
Of ivory, and papyrus scrolls, whereon
Was writ their passion; then themselves did come
With spicy caravans, in purple state,
To seek regard from her imperial eyes.
But she remained unwed, and to the end
Walked with the angels in her widow's weeds.

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