Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, JUDITH, by THOMAS BAILEY ALDRICH



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JUDITH, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Now holofernes with his barbarous
Last Line: Walked with the angels in her widow's weeds.
Subject(s): Judith (bible)


I.

JUDITH IN THE TOWER.

Now Holofernes with his barbarous hordes
Crost the Euphrates, laying waste the land
To Esdraelon, and, falling on the town
Of Bethulia, stormed it night and day
Incessant, till within the leaguered walls
The boldest captains faltered; for at length
The wells gave out, and then the barley failed,
And Famine, like a murderer masked and cloaked
Stole in among the garrison. The air
Was filled with lamentations, women's moans
And cries of children; and at night there came
A fever, parching as a fierce simoom.
Yet Holofernes could not batter down
The brazen gates, nor make a single breach
With beam or catapult in those tough walls:
And white with rage among the tents he strode,
Among the squalid Tartar tents he strode,
And curst the gods that gave him not his will,
And curst his captains, curst himself, and all;
Then, seeing in what strait the city was,
Withdrew his men hard by the fated town
Amid the hills, and with a grim-set smile
Waited, aloof, until the place should fall.
All day the house-tops lay in sweltering heat,
All night the watch-fires flared upon the towers;
And day and night with Israelitish spears
The ramparts bristled.

In a tall square Tower,
Full-fronting on the vile Assyrian camp,
Sat Judith, pallid as the cloudy moon
That hung half-faded in the dreary sky;
And ever and anon she turned her eyes
To where, between two vapor-haunted hills,
The dreadful army liked a caldron seethed.
She heard, far off, the camels' gurgling groan,
The clank of arms, the stir and buzz of camps;
Beheld the camp-fires, flaming fiends of night
That leapt, and with red hands clutched at the dark;
And now and then, as some mailed warrior stalked
Athwart the fires, she saw his armor gleam.
Beneath her stretched the temples and the tombs,
The city sickening of its own thick breath,
And over all the sleepless Pleiades.

A star-like face, with floating clouds of hair --
Merari's daughter, dead Manasses' wife,
Who (since the barley-harvest when he died),
By holy charities, and prayers, and fasts,
Walked with the angels in her widow's weeds,
And kept her pure in honor of the dead.
But dearer to her bosom than the dead
Was Israel, its Prophets and its God:
And that dread midnight in the Tower alone,
Believing He would hear her from afar,
She lifted up the voices of her soul
Above the wrangling voices of the world:

"Oh, are we not Thy children who of old
Trod the Chaldean idols in the dust,
And built our altars only unto Thee?
Didst Thou not lead us unto Canaan
For love of us, because we spurned the gods?
Didst Thou not bless us that we worshipped Thee?
And when a famine covered all the land,
And drove us unto Egypt, where the King
Did persecute Thy chosen to the death --
Didst Thou not smite the swart Egyptians then,
And guide us through the bowels of the deep
That swallowed up their horsemen and their King?
For saw we not, as in a wondrous dream,
The up-tost javelins, the plunging steeds,
The chariots sinking in the wild Red Sea?
O Lord, Thou hast been with us in our woe,
And from Thy bosom Thou hast cast us forth,
And to Thy bosom taken us again:
For we have built our temples in the hills
By Sinai, and on Jordan's flowery banks,
And in Jerusalem we worship Thee.
O Lord, look down and help us. Stretch Thy hand
And free Thy people. Make us pure in faith,
And draw us nearer, nearer unto Thee."

As when a harp-string trembles at a touch,
And music runs through all its quivering length,
And does not die, but seems to float away,
A silvery mist uprising from the string --
So Judith's prayer rose tremulous in the night,
And floated upward unto other spheres;
And Judith loosed the hair about her brows,
And bent her head, and wept for Israel.

Now while she wept, bowed like a lotus-flower
That watches its own shadow in the Nile,
A stillness seemed to fall upon the land,
As if from out the calyx of a cloud,
That blossomed suddenly 'twixt the earth and moon,
It fell -- and presently there came a sound
Of many pinions rustling in the dark,
And voices mingling, far and near, and strange
As sea-sounds on some melancholy coast
When first the equinox unchains the Storm.
And Judith started, and with one quick hand
Brushed back the plenteous tresses from a cheek
That whitened like a lily and so stood,
Nor breathed nor moved, but listened with her soul;
And at her side, invisible, there leaned
An Angel mantled in his folded wings --
To her invisible, but other eyes
Beheld the saintly countenance; for, lo!
Great clouds of spirits swoopt about the Tower
And drifted in the eddies of the wind.
The Angel stoopt, and from his radiant brow,
And from the gleaming amaranth in his hair,
A splendor fell on Judith, and she grew,
From her black tresses to her arched feet,
Fairer than morning in Arabia.
Then silently the Presence spread his vans,
And rose -- a luminous shadow in the air --
And through the zodiac, a white star, shot.

As one that wakens from a trance, she turned,
And heard the twilight twitterings of birds,
The wind in the turret, and from far below
Camp-sounds of pawing hoof and clinking steel;
And in the East she saw the early dawn
Breaking the night's enchantment; saw the Moon,
Like some wan sorceress, vanish in mid-heaven,
Leaving a moth-like glimmer where she died.

And Judith rose, and down the spiral stairs
Descended to the garden of the Tower,
Where, at the gate, lounged Achior, lately fled
From Holofernes; as she past she spoke:
"The Lord be with thee, Achior, all thy days."
And Achior saw the Spirit of the Lord
Had been with her, and, in a single night,
Worked such a miracle of form and face
As left her lovelier than all womankind
Who was before the fairest in Judaea.
But she, unconscious of God's miracle,
Moved swiftly on among a frozen group
Of statues that with empty, slim-necked urns
Taunted the thirsty Seneschal, until
She came to where, beneath the spreading palms,
Sat Chabris with Ozias and his friend
Charmis, governors of the leaguered town.
They saw a glory shining on her face
Like daybreak, and they marvelled as she stood
Bending before them with humility.
And wrinkled Charmis murmured through his beard:
"This woman walketh in the smile of God."

"So walk we all," spoke Judith. "Evermore
His light envelops us, and only those
Who turn aside their faces droop and die
In utter midnight. If we faint we die.
O, is it true, Ozias, thou hast sworn
To yield our people to their enemies
After five days, unless the Lord shall stoop
From heaven to help us?"

And Ozias said:
"Our young men die upon the battlements;
Our wives and children by the empty tanks
Lie down and perish."

"If we faint we die.
The weak heart builds its palace on the sand,
The flood-tide eats the palace of a fool:
But whoso trusts in God, as Jacob did,
Though suffering greatly even to the end,
Dwells in a citadel upon a rock
That wind nor wave nor fire shall topple down."

"Our young men die upon the battlements,"
Answered Ozias; "by the dusty wells
Our wives and children."

"They shall go and dwell
With Seers and Prophets in eternal joy!
Is there no God?"

"One only," Chabris spoke,
"But now His face is darkened in a cloud.
He sees not Israel."

"Is His mercy less
Than Holofernes'? Shall we place our faith
In this fierce bull of Assur? are we mad
That we so tear our throats with our own hands?"
And Judith's eyes flashed battle on the three,
Though all the woman quivered at her lip
Struggling with tears.

"In God we place our trust,"
Said old Ozias, "yet for five days more."
"Ah! His time is not man's time," Judith cried,
"And why should we, the dust about His feet,
Decide the hour of our deliverance,
Saying to Him, Thus shalt Thou do, and so?"

Then gray Ozias bowed his head, abashed
That eighty winters had not made him wise,
For all the drifted snow of his long beard:
"This woman speaketh wisely. We were wrong
That in our anguish mocked the Lord our God,
The staff, the scrip, the stream whereat we drink."
And then to Judith: "Child, what wouldst thou have?"

"I know and know not. Something I know not
Makes music in my bosom; as I move
A presence goes before me, and I hear
New voices mingling in the upper air;
Within my hand there seems another hand
Close-prest, that leads me to yon dreadful camp;
While in my brain the fragments of a dream
Lie like a broken string of diamonds,
The choicest missing. Ask no more. I know
And know not.... See! the very air is white
With fingers pointing. Where they point I go."

She spoke and paused: the three old men looked up
And saw a sudden motion in the air
Of white hands waving; and they dared not speak,
But muffled their thin faces in their robes,
And sat like those grim statues which the wind
Near some unpeopled city in the East
From foot to forehead wraps in desert dust.

"Ere thrice the shadow of the temple slants
Across the fountain, I shall come again."
Thus Judith softly: then a gleam of light
Played through the silken lashes of her eyes,
As lightning through the purple of a cloud
On some still tropic evening, when the breeze
Lifts not a single blossom from the bough:
"What lies in that unfolded flower of time
No man may know. The thing I can I will,
Leaning on God, remembering how He loved
Jacob in Syria when he fed the flocks
Of Laban, and what miracles He did
For Abraham and for Isaac at their need.
Wait thou the end; and, till I come, keep thou
The sanctuaries." And Ozias swore
By those weird fingers pointing in the air,
And by the soul of Abraham gone to rest,
To keep the sanctuaries, though she came
And found the bat sole tenant of the Tower,
And all the people bleaching on the walls,
And no voice left. Then Judith moved away,
Her head bowed on her bosom, like to one
That moulds some subtle purpose in a dream,
And in his passion rises up and walks
Through labyrinths of slumber to the dawn.

When she had gained her chamber she threw off
The livery of sorrow for her lord,
The cruel sackcloth that begirt her limbs,
And from those ashen colors issuing forth,
Seemed like a golden butterfly new-slipt
From its dull chrysalis. Then, after bath,
She braided in the darkness of her hair
A thread of opals; on her rounded breast
Spilt precious ointment; and put on the robes
Whose rustling made her pause, half-garmented,
To dream a moment of her bridal morn.
Of snow-white silk stuff were the robes, and rich
With delicate branch-work, silver-frosted star,
And many a broidered lily-of-the-vale.
These things became her as the scent the rose,
For fairest things are beauty's natural dower.
The sun that through the jealous casement stole
Fawned on the Hebrew woman as she stood,
Toyed with the oval pendant at her ear,
And, like a lover, stealing to her lips
Taught them a deeper crimson; then slipt down
The tremulous lilies to the sandal straps
That bound her snowy ankles.

Forth she went,
A glittering wonder, through the crowded streets,
Her handmaid, like a shadow, following on.
And as in summer when the beaded wheat
Leans all one way, and with a longing look
Marks the quick convolutions of the wind,
So all eyes went with Judith as she moved,
All hearts leaned to her with a weight of love.
A starving woman lifted ghostly hands
And blest her for old charities; a child
Smiled on her through its tears; and one gaunt chief
Threw down his battle-axe and doffed his helm,
As if some bright Immortal swept him by.

So forth she fared, the only thing of light
In that dark city, thridding tortuous ways
By gloomy arch and frowning barbacan,
Until she reached a gate of triple brass
That opened at her coming, and swung to
With horrid clangor and a ring of bolts.
And there, outside the city of her love,
The warm blood at her pulses, Judith paused
And drank the morning; then with silent prayers
Moved on through flakes of sunlight, through the wood
To Holofernes and his barbarous hordes.

II.

THE CAMP OF ASSUR.

As on the house-tops of a seaport town,
After a storm has lashed the dangerous coast,
The people crowd to watch some hopeless ship
Tearing its heart upon the unseen reef,
And strain their sight to catch the tattered sail
That comes and goes, and glimmers, till at last
No eye can find it, and a sudden awe
Falls on the people, and no soul may speak:
So, from the windy parapets and roofs
Of the embattled city, anxious groups
Watched the faint flutter of a woman's dress --
Judith, who, toiling up a distant hill,
Seemed but a speck against the sunny green;
Yet ever as the wind drew back her robes,
They saw her from the towers, until she reached
The crest, and past into the azure sky.
Then, each one gazing on his neighbor's face,
Speechless, descended to the level world.

Before his tent, stretched on a leopard-skin,
Lay Holofernes, ringed by his dark lords --
Himself the prince of darkness. At his side
His iron helmet poured upon the grass
Its plume of horsehair; on his ponderous spear,
The flinty barb thrust half its length in earth,
As if some giant had flung it, hung his shield,
And on the burnished circuit of the shield
A sinewy dragon, rampant, silver-fanged,
Glared horrible with sea-green emerald eyes;
And, as the sunshine struck across it, writhed,
And seemed a type of those impatient lords
Who, in the loud war-council here convened,
Gave voice for battle, and with fiery words
Opposed the cautious wisdom of their peers.
So seemed the restless dragon on the shield.

Baleful and sullen as a sulphurous cloud
Packed with the lightning, Holofernes lay,
Brooding upon the diverse arguments,
Himself not arguing, but listening most
To the curt phrases of the gray-haired chiefs.
And some said: "Take the city by assault,
And grind it into atoms at a blow."
And some said: "Wait. There's that within the walls
Shall gnaw its heart out -- hunger. Let us wait."
To which the younger chieftains: "If we wait,
Ourselves shall starve. Like locusts we have fed
Upon the land till there is nothing left,
Nor grass, nor grain, nor any living thing.
And if at last we take a famished town
With fifty thousand ragged skeletons,
What boots it? We shall hunger all the same.
Now, by great Baal, we'd rather die at once
Than languish, scorching, on these sun-baked hills!"
At which the others called them "fretful girls,"
And scoffed at them: "Ye should have stayed at home,
And decked your hair with sunny butterflies,
Like King Arphaxad's harlots. Know ye not
Patience and valor are the head and heart
Of warriors? Who lacks in either, fails.
Have we not hammered with our catapults
Those stubborn gates? Have we not hurled our men
Against the angry torrent of their spears?
Mark how those birds that wheel above yon wood,
In clanging columns, settle greedily down
Upon the unearthed bodies of our dead.
See where they rise, red-beaked and surfeited!
Has it availed? Let us be patient, then,
And bide the sovran pleasure of the gods."
"And when," quoth one, "our stores of meat are gone,
We'll even feed upon the tender flesh
Of these tame girls, who, though they dress in steel,
Like more the dulcet tremors of a lute
Than the shrill whistle of an arrow-head."

At this a score of falchions leapt in air,
And hot-breathed words took flight from bearded lips,
And they had slain each other in their heat,
These savage captains, quick with bow and spear,
But that dark Holofernes started up
To his full height, and, speaking not a word,
With anger-knitted forehead glared at them.
As they shrunk back, their passion and their shame
Gave place to wonder, finding in their midst
A woman whose exceeding radiance
Of brow and bosom made her garments seem
Threadbare and lustreless, yet whose attire
Outshone the purples of a Persian queen.

For Judith, who knew all the mountain paths
As one may know the delicate azure veins,
Each crossing each, on his beloved's wrist,
Had stolen between the archers in the wood
And gained the straggling outskirts of the camp,
And seeing the haughty gestures of the chiefs,
Halted, with fear, and knew not where to turn;
Then taking heart, had silently approached,
And stood among them, until then unseen.
And in the air, like numerous swarms of bees,
Arose the wondering murmurs of the throng,
Which checking, Holofernes turned and cried,
"Who breaks upon our councils?" angrily,
But drinking then the beauty of her eyes,
And seeing the rosy magic of her mouth,
And all the fragrant summer of her hair
Blown sweetly round her forehead, stood amazed;
And in the light of her pure modesty
His voice took gentler accent unawares:
"Whence come ye?"
"From yon city."
"By our life,
We thought the phantom of some murdered queen
Had risen from dead summers at our feet!
If these Judaean women are so shaped,
Daughters of goddesses, let none be slain.
What seek ye, woman, in the hostile camps
Of Assur?"
"Holofernes."
"This is he."

"O good my lord," cried Judith, "if indeed
Thou art that Holofernes whom I seek,
And seeking dread to find, low at thy feet
Behold thy handmaid, who in fear has flown
From a doomed people."
"Wherein thou wert wise
Beyond the usual measure of thy sex,
And shalt have such observance as a king
Gives to his mistress, though our enemy.
As for thy people, they shall rue the hour
That brought not tribute to the lord of all,
Nabuchodonosor. But thou shalt live."

"O good my lord," spoke Judith, "as thou wilt,
So would thy handmaid; and I pray thee now
Let those that listen stand awhile aloof,
For I have that for thine especial ear
Most precious to thee." Then the crowd fell back,
Muttering, and half reluctantly, because
Her beauty drew them as the moon the sea --
Fell back and lingered, leaning on their shields
Under the trees, some couchant in the grass,
Broad-throated, large-lunged Titans overthrown,
Eying the Hebrew woman, whose sweet looks
Brought them a sudden vision of their wives
And longings for them: and her presence there
Was as a spring that, in Sahara's wastes,
Taking the thirsty traveller by surprise,
Loosens its silver music at his feet.
Then Judith, modest, with down-drooping eyes:

"My lord, if yet thou holdest in thy thought
The words which Achior the Ammonite
Once spake to thee concerning Israel,
O treasure them, for in them was no guile.
True is it, master, that our people kneel
To an unseen but not an unknown God:
By day and night He watches over us,
And while we worship Him we cannot die,
Our tabernacles shall be unprofaned,
Our spears invincible; but if we sin,
If we transgress the law by which we live,
Our temples shall be desecrate, our tribes
Thrust forth into the howling wilderness,
Scourged and accursed. Therefore, O my lord,
Seeing this nation wander from the faith
Taught of the Prophets, I have fled dismayed,
For fear the towers might crush me as they fall.
Heed, Holofernes, what I speak this day,
And if the thing I tell thee prove not true
Ere thrice the sun goes down beyond those peaks,
Then straightway plunge thy falchion in my breast,
For 't were not meet that thy handmaid should live,
Having deceived the crown and flower of men."

She spoke and paused: and sweeter on his ear
Were Judith's words than ever seemed to him
The wanton laughter of the Assyrian girls
In the bazaars; and listening he heard not
The never-ceasing murmurs of the camp,
The neighing of the awful battle-steeds,
Nor the vain wind among the drowsy palms.
The tents that straggled up the hot hillsides,
The warriors lying in the tangled grass,
The fanes and turrets of the distant town,
And all that was, dissolved and past away,
Save this one woman with her twilight eyes
And the miraculous cadence of her voice.

Then Judith, catching at the broken thread
Of her discourse, resumed, to closer draw
The silken net about the foolish prince;
And as she spoke, from time to time her gaze
Dwelt on his massive stature, and she saw
That he was shapely, knitted like a god,
A tower beside the men of her own land.

"Heed, Holofernes, what I speak this day,
And thou shalt rule not only Bethulia,
Rich with its hundred altars' crusted gold,
But Cades-Barne, Jerusalem, and all
The vast hill-country even to the sea:
For I am come to give unto thy hands
The key of Israel, -- Israel now no more,
Since she disowns her Prophets and her God.
Know then, O lord, it is our yearly use
To lay aside the first fruit of the grain,
And so much oil, so many skins of wine,
Which, being sanctified, are kept intact
For the High Priests who serve before our God
In the great temple at Jerusalem.
This holy food -- which even to touch is death --
The rulers, sliding from their ancient faith,
Would fain lay hands on, being wellnigh starved;
And they have sent a runner to the Priests
(The Jew Ben Raphaim, who, at dead of night,
Shot like a javelin between thy guards),
Bearing a parchment begging that the Church
Yield them permit to eat the sacred corn.
But 't is not lawful they should do this thing,
Yet will they do it. Then shalt thou behold
The archers tumbling headlong from the walls,
Their strength gone from them; thou shalt see the spears
Splitting like reeds within the spearmen's hands,
And the pale captains tottering like old men
Stricken with palsy. Then, O glorious prince,
Then with thy trumpets blaring doleful dooms,
And thy silk banners flapping in the wind,
With squares of men and eager clouds of horse
Thou shalt swoop down on them, and strike them dead!
But now, my lord, before this come to pass,
Three days must wane, for they touch not the food
Until the Jew Ben Raphaim shall return
With the Priests' message. Here among thy hosts,
O Holofernes, will I dwell the while,
Asking but this, that I and my handmaid
Each night, at the twelfth hour, may egress have
Unto the valley, there to weep and pray
That God forsake this nation in its sin.
And as my prophecy prove true or false,
So be it with me."

Judith ceased, and stood,
Her hands across her bosom, as in prayer;
And Holofernes answered: "Be it so.
And if, O pearl of women, the event
Prove not a dwarf beside the prophecy,
Then there 's no woman like thee -- no, not one.
Thy name shall be renowned through the world,
Music shall wait on thee, thou shalt have crowns,
And jewel-chests of costly camphor-wood,
And robes as glossy as the ring-dove's neck,
And milk-white mares, and chariots, and slaves:
And thou shalt dwell with me in Nineveh,
In Nineveh, the City of the Gods!"

At which the Jewish woman bowed her head
Humbly, that Holofernes might not see
How blanched her cheek grew. "Even as thou wilt,
So would thy servant." At a word the slaves
Brought meat and wine, and placed them in a tent,
A silk pavilion, wrought with arabesques,
That stood apart, for Judith and her maid.
But Judith ate not, saying: "Master, no.
It is not lawful that we taste of these;
My maid has brought a pouch of parched corn,
And bread, and figs, and wine of our own land,
Which shall not fail us." Holofernes said,
"So let it be," and lifting up the screen
Past out, and left them sitting in the tent.

That day he mixt not with the warriors
As was his wont, nor watched them at their games
In the wide shadow of the terebinth-trees;
But up and down within a lonely grove
Paced slowly, brooding on her perfect face,
Saying her smooth words over to himself,
Heedless of time, till he looked up and saw
The spectre of the Twilight on the hills.

The fame of Judith's loveliness had flown
From lip to lip throughout the canvas town,
And as the evening deepened, many came
From neighboring camps, with frivolous excuse,
To pass the green pavilion -- long-haired chiefs
That dwelt by the Hydaspe, and the sons
Of the Elymeans, and slim Tartar youths;
But saw not her, who, shut from common air,
Basked in the twilight of the tapestries.

But when night came, and all the camp was still,
And nothing moved beneath the icy stars
In their blue bourns, except some stealthy guard,
A shadow among shadows, Judith rose,
Calling her servant, and the sentinel
Drew back, and let her pass beyond the lines
Into the valley. And her heart was full,
Seeing the watch-fires burning on the towers
Of her own city: and she knelt and prayed
For it and them that dwelt within its walls,
And was refreshed -- such balm there lies in prayer
For those who know God listens. Straightway then
The two returned, and all the camp was still.

One cresset twinkled dimly in the tent
Of Holofernes, and Bagoas, his slave,
Lay prone across the matting at the door,
Drunk with the wine of slumber; but his lord
Slept not, or, sleeping, rested not for thought
Of Judith's beauty. Two large lucent eyes,
Tender and full as moons, dawned on his sleep
And when he woke, they filled the vacant dusk
With an unearthly splendor. All night long
A stately figure glided through his dream;
Sometimes a queenly diadem weighed down
Its braided tresses, and sometimes it came
Draped only in a misty cloud of veils,
Like the King's dancing-girls at Nineveh.
And once it bent above him in the gloom,
And touched his forehead with most hungry lips.
Then Holofernes turned upon his couch,
And, yearning for the daybreak, slept no more.

III.

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, Bethulia, 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 worshipper 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 Judaea 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 Bethulia, 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 Bethulia 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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