Guerilla Warfare in the Mountains
Some weeks had necessarily to pass before the patriot army could assume the offensive. Some kind of drill was necessary, though Judas, who had the chief direction of military affairs, did not attempt to teach his men any elaborate manœuvres. But practice in sword-play and in shooting with the bow was diligently attended to. A corps of slingers was also formed under the command of one Sheba, a Benjamite, who possessed that skill with his weapon which was characteristic of his tribe. The sling was admirably suited to the kind of warfare which they would have to wage. As long as there were stones there would not be wanting missiles for the slings, while the supply of arrows would be likely to fall short, and could not easily be renewed. Meanwhile some rude anvils had been fitted up, and every one who could work as a smith was pressed into the service of repairing old arms or making new ones. By degrees many of the fighting men obtained an equipment which, if not very handsome, was at least fairly effective. Some of the new arrivals, too, were old soldiers, and brought their arms with them. Jews who had enlisted in the armies of the various Asiatic kings flocked to the standard of independence, when once it had been set up. Even some of the well-paid mercenaries who formed the bodyguard of Antiochus were patriotic enough to prefer to their luxurious existence the privations of life among the mountains. It was a life which, at the least, they could lead without offence.
It was winter when Mattathias and his sons reached the mountains; and with the first beginnings of spring the force under his command, now increased to a respectable strength, commenced active operations. These were extended over a considerable range of country to all the villages that had submitted to the edicts of the heathen rulers of the land. Even fortified towns, in several instances, were surprised, not, it may be guessed, without the connivance of the patriotic party within the walls. The idol altars which the King's commissioners had set up were thrown down with every circumstance of indignity. All stores belonging to the usurping government were confiscated for the use of the national forces. But private property was respected. Arms, indeed, if they were likely to be useful, were taken, but always taken at a price.
Severe as was the discipline, it met with a cheerful submission from the men, so commanding was the influence exercised by their leaders. Conspicuous among them were, of course, the sons of Mattathias. All were favourites, but Judas and Simon took the lead. The strength, the skill, and the daring of the first were such that he was absolutely idolized by his troops. There was no task, however perilous, which they would not attempt under his guidance, for there was nothing which he did not seem capable of achieving. His physical strength was enormous; and his fertility of resource unfailing. He had always some new device for outwitting the enemy; and when the crisis of an undertaking arrived, if an attacking party were to be helped up some almost inaccessible height, a gate to be broken open by main force, or a pass to be held against overwhelming odds, Judas was always ready and always, it seemed, successful. Scarcely less honoured, though in a different way, was the prudence and kindliness of Simon. If Judas never failed in an attempt it was, in part at least, because Simon's advice was so uniformly sagacious, because he could measure so exactly the means at their command. And when the fighting was over, no one could be more unwearying in his attentions to the wounded. The voice which rang so loud and clear through the din of battle was now soft and caressing, and the touch of his hand was as gentle and tender as if it had been a woman's.
Such leaders could do anything with their troops, even when they had to task their obedience by the infliction of punishment. Even such men as the ex-robber Benjamin felt what may be called the infection of discipline. He had accompanied one of the expeditions, in which a select force of patriots, after marching forty miles within twenty-four hours, surprised a squadron of Greek cavalry in one of the towns of Galilee. A short but sharp conflict took place in the square of the town, and Benjamin had borne himself with conspicuous courage. The struggle over, the soldiers had received entertainment, not in every case very willingly given, from the inhabitants of the town. Benjamin happened to be quartered upon a particularly churlish host, and resenting the coarse and scanty fare, so unsuited to the wealth apparent in all the fittings of the house, had revenged himself by abstracting a rich cloak belonging to his miserly entertainer. The article was stowed away on his own person, but the keen eye of one of the Chasidim officers espied it; the thief was denounced when the force had reached the encampment, and brought before the council, which was held under the presidency of Judas. The culprit pleaded in vain the shabby treatment which he had received. It was not for him, he was told, to take the law into his own hands. When he urged that the man was a traitor to his country he was asked whether he had himself taken the cloak from patriotic motives. "Did you purpose," said Judas, going to the point with characteristic directness, "to make this a common possession, or to take it for yourself?" Benjamin faltered under this searching question, and had no answer to give. Then Judas pronounced his sentence: "In old time he who had offended in this manner, as did Achan in the matter of the spoils of Jericho, died the death. These times are not equal to a justice so strict. But what the law enjoins that you will suffer. Were such sin as yours to go unpunished we could expect no blessing on our arms. We should become, not what we would be, the armies of the Lord, but a horde of robbers. You will receive forty stripes save one; if you offend again, you die."
Without a murmur the culprit bared his shoulders for the lash. When the whip had once fallen Judas stayed the executioner's hand. "Benjamin," he said, "you have done ill, but you have also done well. You saved from death our brother Seraiah as he lay wounded under the feet of the horsemen. For this good deed the rest of the punishment is remitted. Go, and sin no more."
Seraiah indeed had been so seriously wounded that he had to be carried back to the camp on a litter rudely constructed of boards, and Ruth was now nursing him in the cave which had been originally set apart for their dwelling, and which they still retained. It was a miserable abode, though it at least afforded shelter from the rain. Indeed the lot of the women and children in the patriot encampment was full of suffering. The men had the constant excitement of their warfare to cheer them, but the women had only to toil and to endure. In the day the drought consumed them, and the frost by night. They had none of the comforts of life. Their food was coarse in the extreme, and often very scanty. But, perhaps, their greatest trial was in the matter of clothes. The stock which they had brought with them from their homes was, for the most part, worn out, and it was only on rare occasions, when some property of the heathen fell into the hands of the patriots, that any part of it could be replenished. Sheepskins and goatskins dried in the sun were commonly used, what remained of their wardrobes being reserved for special occasions.
Some time after the incident described above a serious trouble came upon Azariah. Miriam, his elder daughter, when she returned one day from her usual task of gathering herbs to eke out the family meal, complained of headache. It was evident that she was suffering from sunstroke. As the spring advanced the heat in some of the narrow mountain valleys became exceedingly oppressive, and the town-bred child felt it acutely. For some days her life was in danger, all the greater because she had neither medical attendance nor skilful nursing. Ruth did all she could for the little sufferer, but then Ruth had her own husband to attend to, for, though recovering from his wound, he needed much care, and her child was still too young to be left alone. One or two visits in the day was all that she could give. For the most part the girl's father was her nurse, the little Judith giving such help as she could. Love gave a lightness and tenderness to his touch, and supplied the place of skill in that marvellous way which is so often possible to love. Day after day, as he sat by the bedside, and watched his charge, the girl's face, now pale and wasted, and aged as it was with suffering, reminded him more and more of his lost Hannah. He lived over the happy past that they had known before the evil days began, the time when their first acquaintance as youth and maiden had ripened into love, and the early years of their wedded life. Thus he began to live in a world of imagination, while the sordid circumstances of the present seemed to make no impression upon him, though he always retained a punctual recollection of the duties that belonged to his attendance upon the sick.
One day Ruth had come in to pay the daily visit for which, however engrossing her own occupations, she always contrived to find an opportunity. The patient was in a sound sleep, with the little Judith for her sole attendant, Azariah having received an urgent summons to attend a council of war, in which some subject with which he was especially acquainted was to be discussed.
After a few minutes Azariah returned, but without any of the signs of agitation or haste that might be expected from one hurrying back to the performance of a duty that he had been compelled to neglect. His sister wondered to see him so calm, and she was still more surprised when he went on to say—
"How like the child is growing to my dear Hannah!"
Ruth had often thought the same, but had not ventured to say so, for Azariah had never mentioned his dead wife.
"Yes," she answered, "I have often thought so."
"I have had some happy times of late. Before I could not get out of my mind the dreadful sight of her face when I last saw it." He paused for a moment, overpowered by the recollection, but soon resumed in a cheerful voice: "But now in this dear child I seem to see her as she was in those happy Bethlehem days before our marriage, and again in the still happier time we had together in Jerusalem."
"But does it not trouble you to leave the child alone?"
"Nay, sister, she is not alone. Nor do I speak of our dear little Judith here." And he stroked the little girl's head, and bade her go and play outside, but be careful not to go into the sun.
"Believe me," he went on, "that when I am not here, Miriam's angel is with her. Perhaps you will think me mad when I say that I have seen, and that not once or twice only, the flash of white garments vanishing in the darkness as I came into the cave. And last night, as I sat here, dreaming, it may be, but certainly seeing everything in the cave as plainly as I see it this moment, the angel came with the little babe—our little David that my Hannah took with her to Paradise—to kiss his sick sister. And when Miriam awoke about an hour after dawn, the fever had left her."
At this moment the girl opened her eyes. "Oh, father," she cried, "did you indeed see little brother last night?—for I saw him too; but I did not see that an angel was carrying him. He seemed to be in the air somehow, with no one holding him up. And he had beautiful white clothes—not these nasty sheepskins and goatskins that we have to wear—and he stretched out his hands to me, and kissed me, and I felt that moment as if that dreadful burning had gone out of me. And oh! there was such a wonderful look upon his face. It was just like the look on dear mother's face that evening when the sun was just setting, and you took little brother up in your arms, and said his name was David."
Ruth could only listen to such talk with wonder and awe. But she went back to her husband and child with a lighter heart than she had borne for many days.
But a trouble was at hand which, though it had been for some time foreseen, was great enough to make private sorrows and anxieties seem inconsiderable. It was reported through the encampment that Mattathias, the father of his people, was dying.
The old man's health had been failing for some time. The hardships of his new life had told grievously upon it, all the more that he refused the exemption from labour which his age required. He had ceased to accompany the expeditions because he found that his presence hampered the movements of younger and stronger men, but the management of the multifarious affairs of the encampment—the home administration, as it may be called, of the patriotic movement—he kept in his own hands. Early and late he busied himself in this work, and before many weeks were past his labours wore him out.
He was well aware that the end had come, and that all that remained for him to do was to appoint a successor who should accomplish, or at least carry on—for he did not deceive himself as to the difficulty of the work—the task which he had commenced. All the leaders were summoned to his presence, the wounded Seraiah, for whose capacity and serene courage the old chief had a high regard, being carried thither on a litter. The old man was propped in his bed on cushions, the difficulty of breathing making it impossible for him to lie down. On either side stood his five sons, John, the eldest, being at his right hand, with Eleazar and Jonathan near him, while Simon and Judas were on the left. A physician, the solitary professor of the healing art that the camp possessed, sat by the bed's foot, with a cup of some cordial in his hand.
The old man began by laying his hand on John's head, "My son," he said, "for your loyalty and faithful obedience I thank the Lord that gave me so excellent a son for my first-born. You know what it is in my mind to do with respect to the succession of my work, and I am assured that you approve. But for the sake of those that stand by,"—and he pointed to the assembled chiefs—"I solemnly declare that for no defect of courage or honesty I pass you by. And say if you are content to leave it according to what seems best to my judgment."
"Father," said the faithful John, "I am content."
Simon beckoned to the physician, who handed the cup of cordial to the dying man. He swallowed a few drops, and then went on:
"Hear, my friends and brethren. In the distribution of my worldly goods I follow custom and law. The inheritance of my fathers I give to my eldest born, according to the custom of the birthright; and I direct that the younger shall have such portions as are due to them. But I have that to give which has been entrusted to me of the Lord, and with which I must deal according to His pleasure, so far as it is given to me to know it. Simon, I will that thou be the father of the people. Care for them as for thy children. Do justice between man and man. Strive to the utmost that they keep the Law of the Lord their God. He has given thee prudence and discernment and knowledge of the customs of our fathers. See that thou use these things for the glory of the Lord and the good of the people. Judas, I will that thou be captain of the host. Be stout and of a good courage, and the Lord shall fight on thy side, and give thee the victory. The end is not yet, and maybe thou wilt not see it with thine eyes; but, though it tarry, wait for it. 'For they that go on their way weeping, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with joy, and bring their sheaves with them.' "
He then addressed a few words to the two other sons, words of mingled encouragement and advice. This done he stretched out his hands, and, with a voice of surprising firmness in one so weak, blessed the whole assembly, repeated the usual profession of an Israelite's faith, and then drew his last breath, without a struggle.