Part 7, Chapter 4

Part VII

Chapter 4

THE deserted city of the wilderness presented a very different appearance from that which met the astonished gaze of Alroy, when he first beheld its noble turrets, and wandered in its silent streets of palaces.

Without the gates was pitched a numerous camp of those low black tents common among the Kourds and Turkmans;* the principal street was full of busy groups engaged in all the preparations of warfare, and all the bustling expedients of an irregular and adventurous life; steeds were stalled in ruined chambers, and tall camels raised their still visages among the clustering columns, or crouched in kneeling tranquillity amid fallen statues and prostrate obelisks.

Two months had scarcely elapsed since Alroy and Jabaster had sought Scherirah in his haunt, and announced to him their sacred mission. The callous heart of him, whose ‘mother was a Jewess,’ had yielded to their inspired annunciations. He embraced their cause with all the fervour of conversion, and his motley band were not long sceptical of a creed which, while it assuredly offered danger and adventure, held out the prospects of wealth and even empire. From the city of the wilderness the new Messiah sent forth his messengers to the neighbouring cities, to announce his advent to his brethren in captivity. The Hebrews, a proud and stiff-necked race, ever prone to rebellion, received the announcement of their favourite prince with transport. The descendant of David, and the slayer of Alschiroch, had double claims upon their confidence and allegiance, and the flower of the Hebrew youth in the neighbouring cities of the Caliphate repaired in crowds to pay their homage to the recovered sceptre of Solomon.

The affair was at first treated by the government with contempt, and the sultan of the Seljuks contented himself with setting a price upon the head of the murderer of his brother; but, when several cities had been placed under contribution, and more than one Moslem caravan stopped, and plundered in the name of the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, orders were despatched from Bagdad to the new governor of Hamadan, Hassan Subah, to suppress the robbers, or the rebels, and to send David Alroy dead or alive to the capital.

The Hebrew malcontents were well apprised by their less adventurous but still sympathising brethren of everything that took place at the head-quarters of the enemy. Spies arrived on the same day at the city of the wilderness, who informed Alroy that his uncle was thrown into a dungeon at Hamadan, and that a body of chosen troops were about to escort a royal harem from Bagdad into Persia.

Alroy attacked the escort in person, utterly discomfited them, and captured their charge. It proved to be the harem of the Governor of Hamadan, and if for a moment the too sanguine fancy of the captor experienced a passing pang of disappointment, the prize at least obtained, as we have seen, the freedom and security of his dear though distant friends. This exploit precipitated the expedition which was preparing at Hamadan for his destruction. The enraged Hassan Subah started from his divan, seized his scimetar, and without waiting for the auxiliaries he had summoned from the neighbouring chieftains, called to horse, and at the head of two thousand of the splendid Seljuk cavalry, hurried to vindicate his love and satiate his revenge.

Within the amphitheatre which he first entered as a prisoner, Alroy sat in council. On his right was Jabaster, Scherirah on his left. A youth, little his senior, but tall as a palm-tree, and strong as a young lion, was the fourth captain. In the distance, some standing, some reclining, were about fifty men completely armed.

‘Are the people numbered, Abner?’* inquired Alroy of the youth.

‘Even so; three hundred effective horsemen, and two thousand footmen; but the footmen lack arms.’

‘The Lord will send them in good time,’ said Jabaster; ‘meanwhile let them continue to make javelins.’

‘Trust in the Lord,’ murmured Scherirah, bending his head, with his eyes fixed on the ground.

A loud shout was heard throughout the city. Alroy started from his carpet. The messenger had returned. Pale and haggard, covered with sweat and sand, the faithful envoy was borne into the amphitheatre almost upon the shoulders of the people. In vain the guard endeavoured to stem the passage of the multitude. They clambered up the tiers of arches, they filled the void and crumbling seats of the antique circus, they supported themselves upon each other’s shoulders, they clung to the capitals of the lofty columns. The whole multitude had assembled to hear the intelligence; the scene recalled the ancient purpose of the building, and Alroy and his fellow-warriors seemed like the gladiators of some old spectacle.

‘Speak,’ said Alroy, ‘speak the worst. No news can be bitter to those whom the Lord will avenge.’

‘Ruler of Israel! thus saith Hassan Subah,’ answered the messenger: ‘My harem shall owe their freedom to nothing but my sword. I treat not with rebels, but I war not with age or woman; and between Bostenay and his household on one side, and the prisoners of thy master on the other, let there be peace. Go, tell Alroy I will seal it in his best blood. And lo! thy uncle and thy sister are again in their palace.’

Alroy placed his hand for a moment to his eyes, and then instantly resuming his self-possession, he enquired as to the movements of the enemy.

‘I have crossed the desert on a swift dromedary54 lent to me by Shelomi* of the Gate, whose heart is with our cause. I have not tarried, neither have I slept. Ere to-morrow’s sunset the Philistines* will be here, led by Hassan Subah himself. The Lord of Hosts be with us! Since we conquered Canaan,* Israel hath not struggled with such a power!’

A murmur ran through the assembly. Men exchanged enquiring glances, and involuntarily pressed each other’s arms.

‘The trial has come,’ said a middle-aged Hebrew, who had fought twenty years ago with Jabaster.

‘Let me die for the Ark!’ said a young enthusiast of the band of Abner.

‘I thought we should get into a scrape,’ whispered Kisloch the Kourd to Calidas the Indian. ‘What could have ever induced us to give up robbing in a quiet manner?’

‘And turn Jews!’ said the Guebre, with a sneer.

‘Look at Scherirah,’ said the Negro, grinning. ‘If he is not kissing the sceptre of Solomon!’

‘I wish to heaven he had only hung Alroy the first time he met him,’ said Calidas.

‘Sons of the Covenant!’ exclaimed Alroy, ‘the Lord hath delivered them into our hands. To-morrow eve we march to Hamadan!’

A cheer followed this exclamation.

‘It is written,’ said Jabaster, opening a volume, ‘Lo! I will defend this city, to save it, for mine own sake, and for my servant David’s sake.’*

‘And it came to pass that night that the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians, an hundred four score and five thousand; and when they arose early in the morning, behold! they were all dead corpses.’

‘Now, as I was gazing upon the stars this morn, and reading the celestial alphabet known to the true Cabalist,55 behold! the star of the house of David and seven other stars moved, and met together, and formed into a circle. And the word they formed was a mystery to me; but lo! I have opened the book, and each star is the initial letter of each line of the Targum* that I have now read to you. Therefore the fate of Sennacherib* is the fate of Hussan Subah!’


At this moment a female form appeared on the very top of the amphitheatre, upon the slight remains of the uppermost tier of which a solitary arch alone was left. The chorus instantly died away, every tongue was silent, every eye fixed. Hushed, mute, and immovable, even Kisloch and his companions were appalled as they gazed upon Esther the Prophetess.

Her eminent position, her imposing action, the flashing of her immense eyes, her beautiful but awful countenance, her black hair, that hung almost to her knees, and the white light of the moon, just rising over the opposite side of the amphitheatre, and which threw a silvery flash upon her form, and seemed to invest her with some miraculous emanation, while all beneath her was in deep gloom, these circumstances combined to render her an object of universal interest and attention, while in a powerful but high voice she thus addressed them.

‘They come, they come! But will they go? Lo! hear ye this, 0 house of Jacob, which are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah! I hear their drum in the desert, and the voice of their trumpets is like the wind of eve, but a decree hath gone forth, and it says, that a mortal shall be more precious than fine gold, yea, a man than the rich ore of Ophir.*

‘They come, they come! But will they go? I see the flash of their scimetars, I mark the prancing of their cruel steeds; but a decree hath gone forth, and it says, a gleaning shall be left among them, as in the shaking of the olive-tree; two or three berries on the top of the uppermost bough; four or five on the straggling branches.

‘They come, they come! But will they go? Lo! a decree hath gone forth, and it says, Hamadan shall be to thee for a spoil, and desolation shall fall upon Babylon. And there shall the wild beasts of the desert lodge, and howling monsters shall fill their houses, and there shall the daughters of the ostrich dwell, and there shall the screech-owl pitch her tent, and there shall the night-raven lay her eggs, and there shall the satyrs hold their revels. And wolves shall howl to one another in their palaces, and dragons in their voluptuous pavilions. Her time is near at hand; her days shall not be prolonged; the reed and the lotus shall wither in her rivers; and the meadows by her canals shall be as the sands of the desert. For, is it a light thing that the Lord should send his servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel? Sing, 0 heavens, and be joyful, 0 earth, and break forth into singing, 0 mountains, for the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted!’

She ceased; she descended the precipitous side of the amphitheatre with rapid steps, vaulting from tier to tier, and bounding with wonderful agility from one mass of ruin to another. At length she reached the level; and then foaming and panting, she rushed to Alroy, threw herself upon the ground, embraced his feet, and wiped off the dust from his sandals with her hair.

The assembly broke into long and loud acclamations of supernatural confidence and sanguine enthusiasm. They beheld their Messiah wave his miraculous sceptre. They thought of Hassan Subah and his Seljuks only as of victims, and of to-morrow only as of a day which was to commence a new era of triumph, freedom, and empire!