The Last Battle
It was the night before the battle. Day by day and hour by hour the contagion of doubt and disaffection had been spreading through the little army that followed Judas. He had had three thousand men when he pitched his camp at Eleasa, and the three thousand had now dwindled down to less than one.
Judas was sitting by one of the camp-fires with Azariah and Seraiah, when two soldiers came up, bringing bound between them a man, who had endeavoured, they said, to make his way into the camp. He wore his hat drawn down over his forehead, and little of his face could be seen, but there was something in his figure that seemed familiar to Azariah.
"Who are you?" said Judas, "and what want you in the camp? Are you for us or for our enemies?"
"My lord," said the man, "my name is Benjamin, and—for I will hide nothing from you—I am a robber. Once I was a soldier in your army, but I broke the law, and I fled lest I should be put to death. Now I am come, of my own accord, to make such amends for my transgression as I may. Slay me, if you will, as I stand here. There is no need of a trial. I have been tried and condemned, and I acknowledge that I deserve to die. But if you will be merciful, let me fight in the morning by your side; and on the morrow, if I yet live, let me suffer the due punishment. Life I ask not, but only that I may strike a blow for you before I die."
"Unbind him," said Judas to the soldiers.
The command was obeyed.
"You are free to go or stay. But I would gladly have you at my side to-morrow, for I have forgotten all but that you are a brave man."
Benjamin stepped forward, and raising the hem of the captain's robe to his lips, kissed it. He then knelt, and putting his head to the ground made as though he would have placed Judas's foot upon his neck.
"Nay," said the captain, "we want not slaves, but brothers." And he raised him from the ground. "And now," he went on, "sit down and tell us what you know, for I make sure that you have not come empty of news."
Benjamin did indeed know all that could be known about the enemy, and, indeed, about the situation of affairs. To a question from Seraiah he replied that a surprise was impossible. The camp was too well guarded and watched.
"Do they know our real numbers?" asked Judas.
"Yes," was the answer, "the deserters have told them." And he proceeded to give a number of names of those who had gone over to the enemy, with a readiness and a precision that showed how diligent had been his watch.
When he had told his story, and understood that there was nothing more for him to do before the morrow, he wrapped himself in his cloak, and with characteristic indifference to the future, fell immediately into a profound and dreamless sleep.
As soon as the first rays of light were seen Judas mustered his soldiers and hastily numbered them. There were about eight hundred in all, while the army of Bacchides, according to the calculations of Benjamin, which seemed to have been carefully made, could not be less than twenty thousand.
Judas was not dismayed by this disparity of numbers, but was still true to his old strategy of attack. "Let us go up against our enemies," was the exhortation that he addressed to the remnant that was still faithful to him. At first they shrank back. The odds were too vast; the attempt too desperate. An old soldier who had proved his valour on more than one battle-field was put forward as their spokesman.
"This, sir," he said, "will be to tempt God. Let us now save our lives. Hereafter we will return again, and fight with them. But now we are too few."
But Judas did not waver for a moment. "God forbid," he cried, "that I should do this thing, and flee away from them. Not so; if our time is come, let us die manfully for our brethren, and not stain our honour."
His words roused once more an answering echo in the hearts of those who heard him. They replied with a cry of assent. Victory they could not hope for, but their captain they would follow whithersoever he should lead them, and as long as he lived they would guard his life with theirs.
The little host was then divided into five companies, commanded by Judas and his two brothers, Simon and Jonathan, by Seraiah and Micah respectively. Azariah, whose standing in the army would have entitled him to a separate command, had made a special request that he might be allowed to fight by the side of Judas. Benjamin had begged and obtained the same privilege.
On both sides the trumpets sounded, and both armies moved forward. It was with nothing less than astonishment that the Greeks saw the slender proportion of the force that was opposed to them. Most laughed aloud at the thought that such a handful of men should venture to stand up against their own well-appointed and numerous host. Others, who had before crossed swords with Judas's men knew that that day's battle, end as it might, would be no laughing matter. And indeed they were right. The little company of Jewish heroes fought as three centuries before Leonidas and his men had fought at Thermopylae. The Greeks came on with the same arrogant confidence in their numbers as did the picked Persian force against the defenders of Greece, and met with a like disastrous repulse. Such was the fury of the Jewish soldiers, such their agility and strength, that they kept the attacking force in check during the whole day. When night approached the Greeks had made, it might almost be said, absolutely no way.
But the resistance, successful as it had been, had cost lives, and Judas saw his force dwindling before his eyes. Then he made his last desperate effort. He threw himself on the right wing, where Bacchides commanded in person, broke the line, and drove it in confusion before him. Possibly he was too rash in his pursuit, but on such a day, when such odds are to be encountered, it is scarcely possible to distinguish between rashness and courage. Anyhow, it was but a brief success. The left wing closed in upon his rear, and he and his gallant band were surrounded. Judas was the mark of a hundred swords and spears. For a time he seemed to bear a charmed life. Azariah and Benjamin, at his right hand and his left, beat down the blows aimed at him, wholly careless of their own lives, while he with the long sweep of his fatal sword—the same that he had taken from the dead Apollonius on his first battle-field—dealt blow after blow, till the ground was covered with the corpses of his enemies. But a spear pierced the stout heart of Benjamin, and a sword-stroke laid Azariah in the dust; and just as the sun sank behind the rugged hills, the hero who had smitten the enemies of his country at Bethhoron and Emmaüs, at Elah and at Adasa, had struck his last blow. The Hammer lay broken on the rock.