Part 7, Chapter 6

Part VII

Chapter 6

THE Seljuks halted before the walls of the deserted city. Their commander ordered a detachment to enter and reconnoitre. They returned and reported its apparent desolation. Hassan Subah, then directing that a guard should surround the walls to prevent any of the enemy from escaping, passed with his warriors through the vast portal into the silent street.

The still magnificence of the strange and splendid scene influenced the temper even of this ferocious cavalry. They gazed around them with awe and admiration. The fierceness of their visages was softened, the ardour of their impulse stilled. A supernatural feeling of repose stole over their senses. No one brandished his scimetar, the fiery courser seemed as subdued as his lord, and no sound was heard but the melancholy, mechanical tramp of the disciplined march, unrelieved by martial music, inviolate by oath or jest, and unbroken even by the ostentatious caracoling* of any showy steed.

It was sunset; the star of eve glittered over the white Ionian fane that rose serene and delicate in the flashing and purple sky.

‘This way, my lord!’ said the merchant guide, turning round to Hassan Subah, who, surrounded by his officers, led the van. The whole of the great way of the city was filled with the Seljukian warriors. Their ebon steeds, their snowy turbans, adorned with plumes of the black eagle and the red heron, their dazzling shawls, the blaze of their armour in the sunset, and the long undulating perspective of beautiful forms and brilliant colours, this regiment of heroes in a street of palaces. War had seldom afforded a more imposing or more picturesque spectacle.

‘This way, my lord!’ said the merchant, pointing to the narrow turning that, at the foot of the temple, led through ruined streets to the amphitheatre.

‘Halt!’ exclaimed a wild shrill voice. Each warrior suddenly arrested his horse.

‘Who spoke?’ exclaimed Hassan Subah.

‘I!’ answered a voice. A female form stood in the portico of the temple, with uplifted arms.

‘And who art thou?’ enquired Hassan Subah, not a little disconcerted.

‘Thine evil genius, Seljuk!’

Hassan Subah, pale as his ivory battle-axe, did not answer; every man within hearing shuddered; still the dread woman remained immovable within the porch of the temple.

‘Woman, witch, or goddess,’ at length exclaimed Hassan Subah, ‘what wouldst thou here?’

‘Seljuk! behold this star. ’Tis a single drop of light, yet who even of thy wild band can look upon it without awe? And yet thou worse than Sisera,* thou comest to combat against those, for whom even “the stars in their courses fought.”’

‘A Jewish witch!’ exclaimed the Seljuk.

‘A Jewish witch! Be it so; behold, then, my spell falls upon thee, and that spell is Destruction.

‘Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song; arise Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam!’

Immediately the sky appeared to darken, a cloud of arrows and javelins broke from all sides upon the devoted Seljuks: immense masses of stone and marble were hurled from all directions, horses were stabbed by spears impelled by invisible hands, and riders fell to the ground without a struggle, and were trampled upon by their disordered and affrighted brethren.

‘We are betrayed,’ exclaimed Hassan Subah, hurling a javelin at the merchant, but the merchant was gone. The Seljuks raised their famous war cry.

‘Oglu, regain the desert,’ ordered the chieftain.

But no sooner had the guard without the walls heard the war cry of their companions, than, alarmed, for their safety, they rushed to their assistance. The retreating forces of Subah, each instant diminishing as they retreated, were baffled in their project by the very eagerness of their auxiliaries. The unwilling contention of the two parties increased the confusion; and when the Seljuks, recently arrived, having at length formed into some order, had regained the gate, they found to their dismay that the portal was barricadoed and garrisoned by the enemy. Uninspired by the presence of their commander, who was in the rear, the puzzled soldiers were seized with a panic, and spurring their horses, dispersed in all directions of the city. In vain Hassan Subah endeavoured to restore order. The moment was past. Dashing with about thirty men to an open ground, which his quick eye had observed in his progress down the street, and dealing destruction with every blow, the dreaded Governor of Hamadan, like a true soldier, awaited an inevitable fate, not wholly despairing that some chance might yet turn up to extricate him from his forlorn situation.

And now, as it were by enchantment, wild armed men seemed to arise from every part of the city. From every mass of ruin, from every crumbling temple and mouldering mansion, from every catacomb and cellar, from behind every column and every obelisk, upstarted some desperate warrior with a bloody weapon. The massacre of the Seljuks was universal. The horsemen dashed wildly about the ruined streets, pursued by crowds of footmen; sometimes, formed in small companies, the Seljuks charged and fought desperately; but, however stout might be their resistance to the open foe, it was impossible to withstand their secret enemies. They had no place of refuge, no power of gaining even a moment’s breathing time. If they retreated to a wall it instantly bristled with spears; if they endeavoured to form in a court, they sank under the falling masses which were showered upon them. Strange shouts of denunciation blended with the harsh braying of horns, and the clang and clash of cymbals and tambours sounded in every quarter of the city.

‘If we could only mount the walls, Ibrahim, and leap into the desert!’ exclaimed Hassan Subah to one of his few remaining comrades; ‘’tis our only chance. We die here like dogs! Could I but meet Alroy!’

Three of the Seljuks dashed swiftly across the open ground in front, followed by several Hebrew horsemen.

‘Smite all, Abner. Spare none, remember Amalek,’* exclaimed their youthful leader, waving his bloody scimetar.

‘They are down; one, two, there goes the third. My javelin has done for him.’

‘Your horse bleeds freely. Where’s Jabaster?’

‘At the gates; my arm aches with slaughter. The Lord hath delivered them into our hands. Could I but meet their chieftain!’

‘Turn, bloodhound, he is here,’ exclaimed Hassan Subah.

‘Away, Abner, this affair is mine.’

‘Prince, you have already slain your thousands.’*

‘And Abner his tens of thousands. Is it so? This business is for me only. Come on, Turk.’

‘Art thou Alroy?’

‘The same.’

‘The slayer of Alschiroch?’

‘Even so.’

‘A rebel and a murderer.’

‘What you please. Look to yourself.’

The Hebrew Prince flung a javelin at the Seljuk. It glanced from the breastplate; but Hassan Subah staggered in his seat. Recovering, he charged Alroy with great force. Their scimetars crossed, and the blade of Hassan shivered.

‘He who sold me that blade told me it was charmed, and could be broken only by a caliph,’ said Hassan Subah. ‘He was a liar.’

‘As it may be,’ said Alroy, and he cut the Seljuk to the ground. Abner had dispersed his comrades. Alroy leaped from his fainting steed, and, mounting the ebon courser of his late enemy, dashed again into the thickest of the fight.

The shades of night descended, the clamour gradually decreased, the struggle died away. A few unhappy Moslemin who had quitted their saddles and sought concealment among the ruins, were occasionally hunted out, and brought forward and massacred. Long ere midnight the last of the Seljuks had expired.56

The moon shed a broad light upon the street of palaces crowded with the accumulated slain and the living victors. Fires were lit, torches illumined, the conquerors prepared the eager meal as they sang hymns of praise and thanksgiving.

A procession approached. Esther the prophetess, clashing her cymbals, danced before the Messiah of Israel, who leant upon his victorious scimetar, surrounded by Jabaster, Abner, Scherirah, and his chosen chieftains. Who could now doubt the validity of his mission? The wide and silent desert rang with the acclamations of his enthusiastic votaries.