News from the Battle-Field
While the patriots, bivouacking on the field of battle, slept the sound sleep of those who have fought a good fight, the women, left, with the children and the sick, in charge of a small guard, only strong enough to protect them against casual robbers, felt the most intense anxiety. Ruth in her cave, with the children slumbering by her side, watched through the night, listening intently to every sound. At one time she could hear the bats which haunted the rocks flapping and fluttering as they went out to take their flights in the night air. Then from farther away came the moaning of the jackals, as they hunted for their prey, with now and then the deeper note of a wolf, or the sound, so strangely like to mocking laughter, of the hooting owls. Everything at that moment seemed very dark and hopeless to the anxious wife.
" 'Tis everywhere the same," she thought to herself—"the stronger hunt and devour the weak. The lions roaring after their prey, do seek their meat from God. The lambs and the fawns are their prey, and God gives the helpless, innocent things into their jaws. And will he give us to the jaws of the heathen who are hunting us that they may devour us? Did He deliver the thousand who died that they might not profane His Sabbath? Not so. He suffered them to perish, to be a prey for the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air. 'Verily our bones lie scattered before the pit, like as when one breaketh and heweth wood upon the earth.' "
And then her thoughts travelled to those who were especially close to her heart. Azariah and Micah—where were they? How had it fared with them in the battle? Were they lying on the field of battle with stark faces turned to the stars of heaven, and the vultures preying on their limbs? And she shuddered, and hid her face in the coarse coverlet under which she lay, as if she would shut out the dreadful picture that her thoughts had conjured up before her.
When she opened her eyes again, there was a faint suspicion of light in the darkness of the cave. The bats came flapping back from the outer air to their haunts in the roof. Jael, the jackal, who had been for her nightly prowl came back with her cubs, and lay down in her accustomed corner. The light grew rapidly stronger, and when Ruth stepped from the threshold of the cave into the fresh morning air, though the sun was not visible, its light had begun to touch the highest summits of the mountains.
Looking to the head of the pass Ruth could see her husband where he stood at his post of observation, a spot which commanded a distant view of the westward approaches to the encampment. As she watched him she observed him make a signal that indicated that he had to make some important communication. A moment afterwards she could see other men hurrying to the spot. She bade Miriam and Judith, who were always her guests during their father's absence, watch the still sleeping infant, and made all the haste she could to join her husband. When she reached him she found the little group of watchers straining their eyes as they gazed at a body of armed men that could be seen in the distance. "Who are they? foes or friends?" was the question that was in every heart, though none ventured to put it into words.
As the vanguard of the approaching force came to an eastward turn in the path, a ray of sunshine touched the helmets of the men and made them glitter.
"What is this?" said one of the men. "They went with caps of leather; whence come these helmets of brass and steel?"
A shudder went through the hearts of Ruth and of the other women who by this time had joined her. If the patriots had been overpowered, and these armed men were heathen murderers and ravishers come to wreak their vengeance on those who had been left behind—
"Whence come they?" said Seraiah. "They are the spoils of the heathen."
As he spoke the distant sound of singing was carried by the wind up the pass, and though the words could not as yet be heard it was recognized at once as one of the Temple chants. The little band of sentries and women raised a joyful shout, and hurried down the pass to meet the new comers. And now the noble voice of Judas could be heard leading the song of triumph. "Thou hast girded me with strength unto the battle; Thou shalt throw down mine enemies under me. Thou hast made mine enemies also to turn their backs upon me; and I shall destroy them that hate me. . . I will beat them as small as the dust before the wind." And now the good news had spread like wildfire through the camp. The rest of the women hastened down to meet and greet the deliverers, and among them Miriam and Judith, carrying Ruth's infant child. The first thought of all was to do honour to the chief who had led the host of the Lord to victory. They kissed the hem of his robe, his hands, even his feet. It was only when they had satisfied these feelings of gratitude and reverence that they could think of private affections. And when the whole array, the women and children now mingling in the ranks with the armed men, reached the top of the pass, it halted for a few minutes. The name which Micah, in his talk with Cleon, had given to Judas had passed through the army, and had caught the popular fancy. There was scarcely a man among them but had seen him dealing death at every blow among the ranks of the heathen. "Hail, Judah Maccâbah! Hail, Hammer of God!" was the cry that went up from the assembled multitude. The title has been given in after times to other sturdy champions of the truth, notably to him who, in the Valley of Tours, turned back the tide of Paynim invasion; but never has it been more honourably gained, or more worthily borne, than it was by Judas, the son of Mattathias.
Great as was the exultation of the patriots over their victory, no one among them, and least of all their far-sighted general, deceived himself with the flattering notion that it had finished the war. Every one was well aware that the defeat and death of Apollonius was not only a disgrace that Antiochus and his lieutenants were bound to avenge, but a disaster that had to be repaired. It was without surprise, therefore, that Judas heard that Seron, Governor of Coele-Syria, was marching southwards over the great maritime plain known by the name of Sharon, with what rumour described as a vast host.
Judas at once resolved to repeat the policy which had been found so successful in the conflict with Apollonius. The enemy would soon reach the passes that led into the hill-country of Eastern Palestine; and it was there that he must be met. To allow him to make good this movement without opposition would be to throw away a great advantage. The Jewish commander resolved, accordingly, to dispute the possession of the pass. With a boldness which seemed to some of his followers to verge upon rashness, he left Jerusalem, occupied as it was by a hostile garrison, behind him, and marched westward till he reached the range which looks over the Plain of Sharon to the Great Sea.
This strategy was simple enough, though it was not wanting in boldness; but then came the difficult question, "What road will the enemy take—the ordinary route by Emmaüs, or the more difficult way through the pass of Beth-horon?" The scouts were at fault, but it seemed likely that a general strange to the country would prefer the easier course. But scarcely had Judas acted on this probability and taken up his position on the plateau of Emmaüs, than a breathless messenger came rushing in with the intelligence that Beth-horon was to be the point of attack. The patriots had already been in motion since dawn, but another march was necessary, and, if it was to be of any avail, must be executed at full speed, and without any pause for food or rest. There had been just time to reach the head of the pass, and to hide the vanguard behind rocks and in the ravines that led into the main road, when the Greek force was seen to be approaching. It was still a mile distant, and as the road was steep, making a rise of not less than five hundred feet in the mile, its progress was slow. It was an anxious time of waiting as the patriots watched the hostile column drawing nearer and nearer. They could see its strength, its dense and numerous files, the discipline showed by the precision of its march, and its complete equipment, so different from their own imperfect supply of weapons and armour. And there were some whose hearts fainted within them at the sight. "How shall we, being so few, be able to stand up against so great and strong a multitude? And now we are worn with marching, and weak for want of bread." Judas was indefatigable in cheering and encouraging them. "With the Lord our God," he said, as he went from one company to another, "it is all one to deliver with a great multitude, or with a small company.'' Then he pointed to Ajalon, and recalled to the thoughts of his hearers the famous associations of the place. "Do you not remember," he said, "how Joshua, the son of Nun, smote the five kings of the Canaanites? The Lord was with him, staying even the sun and the moon in their course, that He might give to His people the heritage of the heathen, and surely He will be with us on this day, for His name's sake, that he may restore to us this same heritage. His enemies come against us in the pride of their hearts to destroy us, and our wives, and our children. But the Lord is on our side; and He will overthrow them before our face. And as for you, be not afraid of them. Stand fast and quit you like men." He had not completed the round of his force—and indeed there were some companies in it which he knew to be of temper so sturdy that they might safely be left to themselves—when the Greeks, slowly labouring in their heavy armour up the ascent, came within reach. Judas gave the signal, and with a loud cry, "The Hammer of God! The Hammer of God!" the patriots rose from their ambush, and threw themselves on the van of the enemy. The attack was entirely unexpected, for the Greek commander was ill-served by his scouts, and it met with no serious resistance. Almost in a moment the Greek line was broken, and a wild flight commenced. When the fugitives reached the plain they scattered themselves in all directions. With his usual prudence, Judas checked his men in their pursuit of the vanquished, but eight hundred lay dead or seriously wounded upon the plain.
Seraiah, who had extorted from the old physician attached to the patriot army an unwilling permission to bear arms, had fallen fainting to the ground, close to the entrance to the pass. Near him lay six or seven Greek corpses. The tide of battle had passed elsewhere, and the place was deserted. This was exactly the opportunity which Benjamin and his associates—since his escape during the expedition to Modin he had gathered about him a small band—had been watching. They issued from their hiding-places among the rocks, and began to search the prostrate bodies for spoil. The first that they came to was a Greek sub-officer, somewhat richly attired. The man was still alive and groaned as they turned him over to get more conveniently at the silver ornaments of his belt. "Curse the villain!" cried Benjamin, as he drove his sword into his side; and when the poor wretch breathed his last, went on, "A brave man might have been left to take his chance, but such cowards as these 'tis positively a good work to despatch. Did you ever see such a scandalous flight?—and they were positively five to one at the very least."
It was now Seraiah's turn to be stripped. He, too, gave signs of life, and one of the robbers, an Edomite, who hated Jews and Greeks impartially, was about to stab him, when Benjamin, who recognized his old comrade's face, interfered.
"Nay, man," he said, " 'tis one of the patriots, and an old friend of mine to boot. Look you after the others, and I will attend to this brave fellow."
Hastily and with a practised hand he bound up Seraiah's wound, for the old place had broken out afresh. The injured man, consumed by the thirst that follows the loss of blood, begged for water. Benjamin supplied him with a draught from the bottle which he carried, and followed it up with some rough wine of the country in a wooden cup. By this time the robbers, who had finished their work of spoiling the dead, were ready to return to their hiding-place among the hills.
"Come, captain," said the Edomite, " 'tis time to go; you had best leave your friend to himself, or you will see more of his countrymen than you will quite like."
"Go," said Benjamin; "I will follow you soon."
Seraiah was now sufficiently revived to be able to sit up. The robber offered him bread and flesh. " 'Tis clean meat," he said. The wounded man, however, refused it. It might be of a lawful kind, but he did not know that it had been lawfully killed, and he contented himself with bread to which he added a few raisins with which he happened to have provided himself. Another draught of wine completed the repast.
"Benjamin," he said, when he had finished, "you are too good for this life, for these friends. Come with us and fight on our side, for be sure that it is the side of the Lord. I will intercede for you to our captain, and he is as merciful as he is strong."
"Nay, nay," said Benjamin, "you are too confident; yours may be the side of the Lord, for I don't know much about these things, but the side of the Lord, as far as I have been able to see, does not always win. I hate these Greeks. They robbed me of my house and everything that I had. May all the curses that are written in the Law overtake them! But they are very likely to get the best of it after all."
"Did you see how they fled to-day?" cried Seraiah.
"Yes; you made them run," said the robber, with a grim laugh. "It was rare sport to see them pelt helter-skelter down the pass, like so many sheep with a dog after them. But there are many more where these came from, and they will simply trample you down."
"That will not be done so easily as you think. Is Judas the Hammer—for that is what the people call him—a likely man to be so dealt with? Nay, Benjamin, he is another Joshua, another David, and I am as sure as if a prophet had told me that the Lord of Hosts is with him, and will deliver the heathen into his hands."
Benjamin was silent awhile. Then he said, in an altered tone, "You say the truth about Judas, the son of Mattathias. A better captain to lead, a better soldier to strike with the sword, I never saw. I would gladly follow him. And verily I would sooner fight for my people than for my own hand. But your ways are over-strict. I cannot put up with these "religious" as you call them. Why should I not eat pig's flesh if I can get it? It has a good relish, and it has never harmed me yet."
"But 'tis forbidden, Benjamin," gently answered Seraiah, now in good hopes of winning over this somewhat stubborn proselyte, "and you are too good a man to give up your country for a matter of meat or drink."
"Aye," said the man, "but there are other things."
"Nothing surely that cannot be borne," went on Seraiah. "Oh, Benjamin, you have saved my life to-day, and henceforth you are my brother; but I could almost wish, but for my wife and child's sake—you remember Ruth and the babe?—that you had left me to die, if I am to see you return to the ways of death."
The cause was almost won when, at an unhappy rnoment, a party of Jewish soldiers returning from the pursuit came in sight. One of them immediately recognized Benjamin, and gave the alarm to his companions. They rushed to arrest him, but Benjamin divined their purpose and dashed up the rocks. To overtake him was impossible, for he was fleet of foot and unencumbered; but one of the Chasidim, for the soldiers belonged to this party, let fly an arrow which struck him in the left arm. It was but a slight wound, for the barb was not covered in the flesh; but it stirred him to a furious rage, which was all the fiercer because, by a great effort, he had just brought himself to yield to Seraiah's arguments. He tore the arrow from the wound, hurled it at his pursuers with impotent rage, and crying, "All the plagues of Egypt consume you!" disappeared among the rocks.
"You have lost a good recruit," said Seraiah to his comrades when they returned to him.
"What should this son of Belial profit us?" one of the Chasidim haughtily replied. "The Lord grant that my next arrow may be driven better home!"
Seraiah made no answer, but painfully lifting himself from the ground made his way up the pass alone. He did not care for the company of his comrades, and they, on their part, though they could not help respecting him as a soldier, thought him sadly wanting in zeal for the Law and for the traditions of the elders.
Late that night some of the fugitives, who had crossed the mountains somewhat further to the south, reached Jerusalem. They found the city anxiously expecting tidings of the battle; and two of their number who were officers were at once brought into the Governor's house. He was indisposed, and Cleon, who had given up his post at Modin and was now attached to head-quarters, saw the new arrivals in his stead. When he had heard their story, he did not conceal his scorn for the mismanagement—or was it cowardice?—that had made a well-equipped and powerful army flee before a crowd of half-armed vagabonds.
"It is easy to talk, my fine sir," retorted one of the men, "when you have only got to stop at home and find fault; but if you had seen them to-day, you would be singing to a very different tune. By all the gods above and below, these Jews rushed on more like lions than men. And as to this Judas, son of Asmon, there is no standing against him. No man wants two blows from his sword."
"A good soldier, I dare say," said Cleon superciliously, "and a skilful swordsman. But there are others as good as he. And as for his army, if it is to be called an army, it is quite impossible that it can hold out very long. I was a little hasty in what I said just now. These fanatics have a way of giving some trouble at first, and it is quite possible for really good troops to be beaten by them. But it is quite out of the question to suppose that they can resist any serious attempt to deal with them. Of course we have made the usual mistake of making too light of them. That must not be done again. The next expedition will be made with overwhelming force, and will unquestionably bring this troublesome matter to an end. I hope to go with it myself."
"That will be as you please, sir," said the officer, who had not by any means recovered his temper after the imputations cast on his courage, "but if I may venture to say so, I would recommend that you should not get in the way of Judas, the son of Asmon."
And, indeed, whatever men like Cleon may have pretended to think, from that time "began the fear of Judas and his brethren and an exceeding great dread to fall upon the nations round about them."