Arabian Poetry, by W. A. Clouston, , at sacred-texts.com
In the course of his exploits as chief of his tribe, Antar had conquered a horseman, called Jezar, who was a famous archer; and, to punish his aggressions upon his people, he had blinded him by causing a red-hot sabre to be passed before his eyes; then he granted him life, liberty, and even the supreme rank in his own tribe.
FROM that time Jezar, son of Jaber, meditated in silence on vengeance. Although his eyes were deprived of sight, he had in no way lost his skill in archery. His ear, practised in following the movements of wild animals by the sound of their steps, was sufficient to guide his hand: never did the arrow miss the mark. His hatred, always alert, listened eagerly for the news which fame spread about his enemy. He learned that Antar, after a distant and fortunate expedition against the frontiers of Persia, was returned to Yemen, laden with as much glory and booty as he had formerly brought from the court of Chosroe, and that he is about to pass into the desert adjoining his encampment. At this story Jezar weeps for envy and rage. He calls Nejim, his faithful slave:
"Ten years are passed," says he to him, "since a burning iron destroyed, by Antar's order, the light of my eyes, and I am not yet revenged! But at last the moment has come when to
quench in his blood the fire which burns in my heart. Antar is encamped, they say, on the banks of the Euphrates. Thither I wish to go to seek him. I shall live hidden in the reeds of the river till Heaven delivers his life into my hands."
Jezar orders his slave to bring him his she-camel which rivals the ostrich in the race: he arms himself with his quiver of poisoned arrows. Nejim makes the camel kneel, helps his master to mount upon her back, and takes the end of the halter of the animal, to direct her steps toward the distant bed of the Euphrates. The blind warrior fills the desert with his wailings and his threats.
After a long day's march through a waterless space, Jezar and his slave reach the banks of the Euphrates, whose course is marked by the verdure of the trees and the herbs along its bed.
"What seest thou on the other bank?" asks Jezar of his slave.
Nejim casts a glance to the other bank. He sees tents richly adorned; numerous flocks; camels wandering in groups on the plain; spears planted in the ground at the doors of the tents; harnessed horses, fastened by the feet, before the dwellings of their masters. A tent more splendid than the rest is erected at a little distance from the river. Before the door arises, like a mast, a long spear of steel, beside which is a horse blacker than ebony. Nejim recognises the noble courser of Antar, the famous Abjer, and his terrible spear. He halts his master's camel behind the shrubs and reeds, which conceal them from all eyes; and they await the hour of darkness.
When night had covered with its shadows the two banks of the Euphrates—
"Let us quit this place," says the blind Jezar to his slave; "the voices which I hear from the other side seem to me too far off for the range of my arrows. Bring me nearer the edge:
my heart tells me that a glorious stroke is about to immortalise my name and my revenge!"
Nejim takes the blind man by the hand; brings him close to the water; makes him sit upon the bank opposite the tent of Antar, and gives him his bow and quiver. Jezar chooses the keenest of his arrows, places it upon the string, and with listening ear awaits the hour of vengeance.
Meanwhile Antar, in the arms of Abla, his beloved wife, for whom ten years of possession have in no wise diminished his love, was forgetting within his tent his fatigue and exploits, when the dismal howling of the dogs—faithful guardians of the camp—cast a prophetic unquiet into his soul.
He rises and goes out of his tent. The sky is dark and cloudy. He wanders, feeling his way in the darkness. The louder voices of the dogs attract him to the river. Impelled by his fate, he goes forward, right up to the bed of the water; and, suspecting the presence of some enemy on the opposite hank, he calls to his brother in a loud voice to search the other side.
Scarcely does his resounding voice echo in the hollow bed of the valley of the Euphrates, reverberating in the rocks and mountains, when an arrow pierces his right side, and penetrates to his entrails. No cry—no groan unworthy of a hero—escapes him through his pain. He withdraws the iron with a firm hand.
"Traitor, who has not dared to attack me in the light of day!" cries he in a loud voice to his invisible enemy—"thou shalt not escape my vengeance!—thou shalt not enjoy the fruit of thy perfidy!"
At that voice, which makes him think that his arrow has missed its mark, the blind Jezar, struck by terror at the thought of the vengeance of Antar, swoons upon the bank, and his slave, thinking him dead, flies upon his camel, leaving his inanimate master where he lay. Antar's brother swims across the river, stumbles against a body which he takes for a corpse, and bears it upon his shoulders, with the bow and arrows, to the camp.
Antar, stretched in his tent amidst his despairing friends, is suffering horrible torments: the tender Abla is stanching his blood, bathing the wound with her tears.
They bring the body of the assassin, the bow and the arrows, into the tent. Antar recognises the mutilated countenance of his enemy: he no longer doubts that the arrow discharged by such a hand was poisoned. Hope leaves his heart: death inevitable presents itself before his eyes.
"Son of my uncle!" says Abla tenderly to him, "why abandon hope? Ought a slight arrow-wound to alarm him who has confronted without fear so many swords and spears, the wounds from which cover his body?"
"Abla," replies Antar, "my hours are numbered. Look at the features of that face;—it is Jezar: the traitor's arrow was poisoned!"
At these words Abla fills the night with her sobs; she rends her garments; she tears her long hair, and picks up dust, which she scatters on her head. All the women of the encampment re-echo her lamentations.
"Dear wife!" says Antar to Abla, "who will defend thy honour and thy life after the death of Antar, in that long journey which remains for thee to make through our enemies before reaching thy father's land? A second husband, another I, can alone save thee from the horrors of slavery. Of all the warriors of the desert, Zeid and Amnem are those whose courage will best protect thy life and thy liberty: choose one of those, and go and promise him thy hand."
Abla replies not but by her tears to a thought which is to her horrible.
"To return to the land where dwell the children of Abs—to assure thy passage through the desert which separates thee from it—clothe thyself with my arms and mount my courser Abjer. In this disguise, which will make our enemies think that I still live, fear not of being attacked. Reply nothing to those who
salute thee upon the road: the sight of the arms and the horse of Antar will suffice to intimidate the boldest."
Antar after these words orders the departure. They strike the tents, fold them, and place them upon the camels. Abla, bathed in her tears, constrains herself, through obedience, to don the heavy armour of Antar. Girt with his sword, holding his straight spear in her hand, she mounts his courser Abjer, whilst the slaves lay the dying Antar in the litter in which Abla used to travel in happier days, when she crossed, like a queen, the desert.
Scarce have they lost sight of the verdant banks of the Euphrates to plunge into the immensity of the desert, when they perceive in the distance tents, like dark dots on the horizon, or a black fringe on the blue mantle of heaven. It is a numerous and powerful tribe. Three hundred horsemen advance to fall upon the caravan; but, on approaching, they recognise the litter and the horse.
"’Tis Antar and Abla!" they say to one another in a low voice—"see, there, his arms, his horse Abjer, and Abla's splendid litter. Let us return to our tents, and not expose ourselves to the anger of these invincible warriors."
Already they are turning the rein, when an old sheikh, more reflective and more sagacious than the young men, says:
"My cousins, that is indeed the spear of Antar, that is indeed his helmet, his armour, and his courser, whose colour resembles a dark night;—but that is neither his lofty figure nor his manly bearing. It is the figure and the deportment of a timid woman, borne down by the weight of the iron which galls her frail limbs. Believe my surmises—Antar is dead, or else a mortal illness hinders him from mounting his horse; and this false warrior whom Abjer bears is Abla, who, to frighten us, has clad herself with her husband's arms, whilst the real Antar is perchance laid dying in the women's litter."
The horsemen, recognising something probable in the old man's words, retrace their steps and follow at a distance the caravan, without daring to attack it.
Now the feeble arm of Abla is bending beneath the weight of the iron spear: she is obliged to hand it to her husband's brother, who walks beside her. Soon, when the sun, arrived half-way in his course, had made the sand of the desert glow like fire, Abla, worn out with suffering and fatigue, raises the vizor of her helmet, to wipe off the sweat which bathed her forehead. The eyes of the hostile Arabs who are watching her catch a glimpse of the whiteness of her face:
"It is not the Black!" they cry; and they dash with all the speed of their horses upon the tracks of Antar's little troop.
At the gallop of their horses behind him—at the neighing of their steeds—at the voice of Abla, which calls him—Antar, who is lying half dead in the litter, rises, shows his head from between the curtains, and utters, for the last time, his terrible war-cry, known of all the desert. The manes of the horses stand erect: the horses bear their riders rigid with terror.
"Woe to us!" say the Arabs, enemies of Abs,—"Antar still lives! It is a snare which he has laid: he has wished to know which is the tribe so bold as after him to aspire to capture his wife and his possessions."
Only a small number, still trusting the voice of the old sheikh, continue to follow afar the caravan.
Antar, spite of his weakness, places Abla in the litter, and mounted upon Abjer, clad in his arms, he marches slowly beside her.
At the close of the day, they reach a valley not far front the tribe of Abs. This place was called the "Valley of
[paragraph continues] Gazelles." Surrounded by inaccessible mountains, one could only enter it from the desert side by a narrow and tortuous pass, where three horsemen could scarcely march abreast. Antar, stopping at the opening of this defile, causes first to enter his flocks, his slaves, and the camel which bears the litter of his dear Abla. When the whole caravan is in safety in the valley, he comes back, to stand alone as sentinel at the end of the gorge, opposite the plain and the Arabs who are following him afar. At this moment his agonies increase; his entrails are torn; each step of his courser makes him suffer torments like to the fire of hell. Death invades his limbs, and yet reveres his dauntless soul. He faces the Arabs; he stops Abjer; he plants the point of his spear in the ground, and leaning against the stem, like a resting warrior allowing his horse to breathe, he stands motionless at the entrance of the pass.
At that sight, the thirty warriors who have hitherto followed the tracks of his caravan halt, hesitating, a few hundred steps from the hero.
"Antar," say they to one another, "has noticed that we were following his march; he awaits us there to slay us all;—let us profit by the shades of night which fall, to escape his sword and rejoin our brothers."
But the old sheikh, steadfast in his opinion, keeps them still.
"My cousins," says he to them in a low voice, "heed not the counsels of fear. The immobility of Antar is the sleep of death!—What! do you not know his fiery courage? Has Antar ever waited for his enemy? Were he living, would not he fall upon us, as the vulture falls upon his prey?—Come on, then, bravely; or, if you refuse to risk your lives against his sword, at least wait till dawn arises, and clears away your doubts."
Half persuaded by the old man, the thirty horsemen resolve to remain where they are; but, always troubled and alarmed at
the least cloud of dust which the wind raises about the feet of Abjer, they pass the whole night on horseback, allowing not their eyes to close in sleep.
At length the day begins to lighten the sky, and to clear away the shades which cover the desert. Antar is still in the same attitude at the entrance of the pass: his courser, obedient to his thought, is motionless as his master.
At this strange spectacle the astounded warriors consult long before coming to a decision. All appearances say to their hearts that Antar has ceased to live; and yet not one of them dares advance to make sure: so strong is the habitude of fear which the hero inspires! . . . The old sheikh wishes to convince himself and them by a proof before flying or advancing. He descends from his mare, lets go the bridle, and pricking her haunch with the point of his spear, he drives her towards the entrance of the pass. Scarcely has she reached in her course the border of the desert next the gorge, when the fiery stallion Abjer darts neighing after the riderless mare. At the first bound of the courser, Antar, supported only by the stem of his spear, which slips away from under him, falls like a tower, and the clang of his armour resounds in the pass.
At that fall—the sound of a lifeless body falling upon the earth—the thirty horsemen flock round the corpse stretched at their horses’ feet. They marvel to see lying motionless in the desert him who made Arabia tremble. They cannot resist measuring with their eyes his gigantic limbs and stature. Foregoing the attack upon the caravan of Abla—to which the stratagem of Antar had given an entire night to reach the tents of the tribe of Abs—the warriors content themselves with robbing the hero of his arms, to carry them to their tribe as a trophy conquered by death. In vain they endeavour to capture his courser. The faithful Abjer, having scented his master dead, feels that there is no longer a rider worthy of
him: fleeter than the lightning, he escapes them, disappears from their eyes, and plunges into the freedom of the desert. They say that the old sheikh, softened by the fate of the hero who had made himself illustrious by so many exploits, wept over his corpse, covered it with sand, and addressed to it these words:
Glory to thee, brave warrior! who, during thy life, hast been the defender of thy tribe, and who, even after thy death, hast saved thy brethren by the terror of thy corpse and of thy name! May thy soul live for ever! May the refreshing dews moisten the ground of this thy last exploit!