The Man in the Dead Sea


Walking on the Dead Sea shore,
Meditating evermore,
Underneath the burning ray
Of intolerable day,
I beheld a fearful thing —
Bloody deed as e'er was done,
Wrought, unblushing, unrelenting,
In the presence of the sun.

Fair, and young, and bright was he,
Who that morning walked with me,
By the margin of the sea;
Calm, and eloquent, and wise,
Radiant in immortal youth;
Knowledge sparkled from his eyes,
From his forehead living truth,
He was a youth indeed divine,
A master and a friend of mine,
For whose dear sake I would have given
All on the mortal side of heaven.

Her eyes seemed coals of living flame,
And incoherent curses came,
Gasping and gurgling, from her mouth.
Never tornado of the south
Made half the wreck as, in that hour,
She would have made had she the power.
My friend stood by, with folded arms,
Serene, and innocent, and pure;
And when she saw that he but smiled
At all her hate, she could endure
No longer on his face to look,
But smote it with her jewelled hand:
" Insensate wretch!" she fiercely said,
" Let me not slay thee where I stand;
I will not stab thee to the heart,
Lest, in my haste, I mar delight,
And thou shouldst die and end thy pain
Too suddenly before my sight.
Not yet thy venomous blood shall flow,
But I will slay thee ere I go!"

Her body-guards, so fierce and grim,
Seized his arms and pinioned him;
And every one, with his gauntlet on, —
An iron gauntlet heavy to bear, —
Smote him on his cheeks and eyes,
And bruised his lips, so ruddy fair,
Till the blood started and over-dyed
The bloom of his face with gory red.
And then they spat on him in spite,
And heaped foul curses on his head.
And he — what could he do but pray,
And let them work their cruel will? —
Turned his looks to the judging sky,
Appealing, though forgiving still.

Then from his lily skin they tore
Every vestment that he bore;
Smote him, threw him on the ground,
And his limbs with fetters bound;
Naked, helpless, and forlorn,
Mark for all their wrath and scorn;
And, with lying words, accused
Of every shame, deceit, and crime;
And, when once he strove to speak,
Filled his mouth with sand and slime;
Stamping on him as he lay,
Bound and bleeding on the way.
And I, alas! alone, alone!
Could but curse them and bemoan
That I could not, as I trod,
Grasp th' avenging bolts of God.

And as he lay upon the beach,
Deprived of motion and of speech,
The queen, that woman so proud and fierce,
Looked upon him with feverish joy;
Her fiery glances seemed to pierce
Through and through the bleeding boy.
She put her hand on his naked breast,
And felt his heart: " Ah! well," said she;
" It beats and beats, but shall not beat
To vex me thus incessantly."
And she drew the poniard from her side,
Slowly, calmly, sheath and all;
Unsheathed it — felt if its edge was sharp,
And dipped its point in poisonous gall;
And, kneeling down, with flashing face,
Gazed upon him, in that place.

She did not stab him: she grasped his flesh
As if she'd tear it from his bones;
Then took the slime from his bleeding mouth
That she might hear his piteous groans.
He faintly said, " Thou canst not kill;
My charmed life defies thy will."
" I can," she answered — whispering low; —
" This is the death that thou shalt know.
Thy days are numbered — thy race is run;
Thou art an insult to the sun."
And in his breast, up to the hilt,
She plunged the dagger, and wrenched it round,
Then drew it out with a joyous cry,
And pointed to the ghastly wound;
Then drove it in again — again,
With force redoubled every time;
And left it sticking in his heart
For very luxury of crime.

Sense and motion left his frame,
From his lips no breathing came:
" He's dead," quoth she; " he's dead at last,
And all my agony is past.
Take him up, let the Dead Sea wave
Float him about without a grave;
Take him up, and throw him in.
In these waters none can sink;
Mid the foul naphtha let him swim,
To gorge the vultures, limb by limb,
When they come to the water's brink;
And if they come not, let him lie,
Rotting betwixt the wave and sky; —
Take him by the heels and chin,
And spit on him, and cast him in."

They twined their coarse hands in his hair;
They took his body so white and fair;
They spat upon his patient face,
Pale, but filled with heavenly grace;
They took him up, and in the sea,
They cast him ignominiously.
And the fearful woman, proud and strong,
The fiendish woman who did the wrong,
Bade clarion sound, and trumpet play,
And went exulting on her way.

A sudden wind — a treacherous wind
Arose upon that Dead Sea shore;
The heavy waves began to swell,
To chafe, and foam, and lash, and roar;
A gloom o'erspread the clear blue sky: —
Once alone I could descry
His fair white limbs go floating by
On the crest of a distant wave;
And I sat me down upon the sand,
Wailing that I, with strong right hand,
Had not snatched him from the grave,
And smitten the murderess to the dust
Ere she sacrificed the just.
All that day the storm blew high,
And all that day I lingered there;
There was no living thing but I
On the shore of that sad sea,
And I was moaning piteously.
Towards the night the wind blew fair,
And the silver rim of the bright new moon
Shone in a deep cerulean air,
And looked at itself in the salt lagoon.
And there was silence, cold as death;
Not a motion but my breath.

Long I sat upon the shore,
Brooding on that cruel wrong,
Wondering if for evermore
The evil thing should be the strong;
When I heard a sudden sound
In the waters far away,
And saw a phosphorescent track
On the breast of the waves so dull and black.
I listened — I could plainly hear
The measured stroke, precise and clear,
Of a swimmer swimming near: —
I looked — I saw the floating locks,
The face upturned, the bosom brave,
The calm, full eyes, that looked on me,
Through the darkness of the sea;
The strong limbs, battling with the wave: —
I saw the motion — I heard the breath,
I knew his victory over death.

It was my friend — my living friend;
I clasped him, clad him, wept for joy.
" They may think," he said, " to strike me dead;
They can but wound me — not destroy.
The strongest bands, the fastest chain
On my free limbs will not remain;
For the deepest wounds that hate can strike
I find a healing in the air;
Even poisoned weapons cannot kill;
They're powerless 'gainst the life I bear.
And she, whose hate pursues me still,
A queen superb, of lofty line,
Shall have her day — then fade away,
And all her empire shall be mine."
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