Fiction

THE PHILISTINE

This girl knew two things—love and war. In the dim tavern of the Seven Eyes, Paltiel, proud armor-bearer to the King of Gath, talked of both—disastrously

W. G. HARDY November 15 1950
Fiction

THE PHILISTINE

This girl knew two things—love and war. In the dim tavern of the Seven Eyes, Paltiel, proud armor-bearer to the King of Gath, talked of both—disastrously

W. G. HARDY November 15 1950

THE PHILISTINE

This girl knew two things—love and war. In the dim tavern of the Seven Eyes, Paltiel, proud armor-bearer to the King of Gath, talked of both—disastrously

W. G. HARDY

HE LOUNGED into the tavern that afternoon, a tall man, arrogant with the easy, unthinking arrogance of youth. The girl he had come to see was bent over behind

the low, brick-built counter, tugging at a jar.

To Paltiel, handsome charioteer and armorbearer of the King of Gath, women seemed, at times, too accessible. Not this girl; she had resisted all his advances.

Drawing himself up, he swirled his cloak around him in the grand manner of the Seren of Ashkelon. “Wine,” he ordered. “Wine for the king’s chari-

“You’ll get none here.” she flung back. “Take your custom elsewhere.”

He had to get into her good graces somehow, this girl whose face for some reason had kept haunting him ever since he’d first seen her, a fortnight back.

“Come, Huldah.” he coaxed, dropping the grand manner and leaning over the counter. “Where else would I drink, little pigeon, while King Achish, may Dagon grant him long life, holds Council?” There was a quick, a speculative glance at him, instantly concealed.

Huldah placed a wine cup on the counter. Picking up a rhyton. with practiced ease, she swung it into position above her right shoulder and, perfectly conscious that her shapeliness was accentuated by the pose, let the thin stream pour downward to fill the cup.

“I hope you choke,” she said, lowering the rhyton.

“May Our Lady, even Atargatis. reward you,” he burlesqued and lifted the cup. Huldah put both hands on the counter and leaned toward him.

“A Council, you said?”

He finished the drink. “The King and the Serens.” he told her. wiping his lips with the back of his hand. “There was, at last, an envoy from that dog of a David. An hour since.”

“What news?” Maoch asked quickly from the table. Paltiel turned. All Gath, ever since the news had come that David, the vassal King of Judah, had, without permission, been anointed King of Israel as well as of Judah, had been wondering if the ancient struggle between Hebrew and

Philistine was about to break out afresh. Paltiel considered Maoch. He was a type for which the young Philistine had little liking, a waddly, popeyed man, wedded to his possessions. He grinned briefly. Then, before their eyes he became the Hebrew envoy, rough, bearded, half fearful in front of Achish, King of Gath and Overlord of the Five Cities, and yet with something stubborn and unyielding within him.

‘Our God. Yahweh,’ ” he intoned with pursed lips and obstinate outthrust of his chin, “ ‘enjoins that no longer shall his people be under the yoke of the false gods of the Philistines.’ ” He laughed and straightened up. And then, noticing the girl motionless, a strange hushed look on her face: “Come, girl. Fill it up again.”

He pushed the wine cup across the counter. As, with a little start, she turned to hoist the rhyton, from against the wall a slender youth whom Paltiel did not know sprang to his feet.

“The ingrate,” he blazed. “Did not Achish, may Dagon increase him, spare this David’s life when, years ago, he fled from before the wrath of Saul? Did he not give him Ziklag to rule? Was it not by his favor that, after Gilboa, this David was made King of Judah? By Marnas of the Bull’s Horns this Hebrew, this stench in the nostrils, must be lessoned.”

“And so say I,” Paltiel told him. “But look you, my friend, ’tis not so easy as talking.” He picked up the cup and put it down without tasting of it. “This David is a soldier as well as a schemer. To unite Israel and Judah against us, those two that like mangy curs were always snapping at each other, was not simple. He has also taken Jerusalem.”

He had flung the news to them carelessly, like a clean-picked bone. The first to recover was Maoch.

“Jerusalem, the impregnable?” he exclaimed, his pop-eyes bulging.

Paltiel nodded, not noticing the quick, indrawn gasp the girl, Huldah, had given. “So, see where we are now, my masters,” he said, still carelessly, as if it didn’t matter too much. “Eight years back, after Gilboa—Saul, King of Israel slain and Jonathan slain and the army of Israel shattered—we Philistines held the hill country and the Hebrews

between our hands like a

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noosed hare. Easy to say now that we should have put in garrisons. Easier to fault Achish, our King, for trusting this dog of a David. But, consider. We Philistines have our Five Cities. The Hebrews are as many as the stones on their barren hills, Let David, our vassal, war with Ishbosheth, last son of Saul, and the remnants of Israel, said our counselors. Thus shall Israel and Judah remain hostile and weak and Philistine lives be spared.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “It was a good thought.” Lifting the cup again he tilted back his head and the girl, even though her mind was in turmoil at what he had told, noted abstractedly how brown and strong that throat was. As Paltiel put down the cup, Maoch got to his feet.

“Yet see how that thought has turned out,” he said, his voice trembling. He stared around. “Judah and Israel as one. Jerusalem, our ally, that thrust a stubborn wedge between

them, conquered. We stand on the razor’s edge.”

The girl was standing, her lips parted, an expression on her face as if she heard angels singing. Without looking at her, Paltiel pushed his cup toward her once more.

“Don’t worry, Maoch,” he laughed. “If war comes, our spearmen and our chariots will scatter these hillmen as the wind scatters chaff on the threshing floor.”

“But why war?” Maoch cried. “If war comes our caravans will be stopped, our trade to Syria and to Amor and the land of the Rivers cut off. Speak this David fair, I say. Recognize the facts. Strike a pact with him.”

“So said the Seren of Gaza,” Paltiel commented dryly.

“A sound man,” Maoch said fervently. “A sensible man.”

“A traitor!” the slender young man told him fiercely. “Are we to endure this, we the Philistines, we whose ancestors, driven forth from their homes by northern barbarians and beaten back from Egypt—and not yet daunted—seized this coastland of the Canaanites? They built our five cities, those forebears of ours. They set up our glorious, our long-lived civilization. \\ hen the I ebrews raided and plundered, did our forefathers talk of trade? No, they marched. They beat down the Hebrews. We can beat them down again.”

“Bravo!” Paltiel applauded. And

then, noticing his cup still empty: “What’s come over you, girl?” He turned back to the young man. “That is how the Seren of Ashkelon spoke. ‘War,’ he said. ‘Litter the ground with their dead. Be on them before they know we have come, O King of Gath.’ ”

“Is it to be war then?” the girl’s voice said at his elbow, breathlessly.

He had forgotten her. Her eyes, he noticed, as he turned, were eager and her cheeks flushed. One echo of the trumpet, he thought a trifle contemptuously, and all women, even Huldah, were alike.

“I could tell you that tonight, little one,” he told her. “Not now.”

“Why not?”

“Because, little dove,” he told her, “at that point, after the Seren of Ashkelon spoke, I was thrust out, expelled, requested to leave. With the Serens all at variance, the Council became a secret one.’

“Then, how will you, a charioteer, come to know what is determined?”

“Because the king talks, Light of my Eyes. Even a king must have someone to talk to.” Paltiel leaned close across the counter. “Tonight in the great

square, at first dusk? To hear whether it be peace or war?”

To his surprise the girl hesitated, her face averted, her eyes veiled, and with a sudden in-catching of his breath, the young Philistine realized that this Huldah, this girl on whom his good looks and his exalted position had seemed to make no impression, was actually considering the proposal.

“Your mother can look after the tavern,” he urged.

She glanced toward the door of the inner room.

“Agreed,” she said.

“The square? At first dusk?”

“Yes.”

It shouldn’t have meant so much to him. He straightened. He glanced hastily at the others in the tavern and it was an instinct to conceal the deep feeling within him.

He saluted. “Till dusk, Light of my Eyes.” He went out the doorway. The girl watched him go and, for an instant, as Maoch and the slender young man turned on each other about the Hebrews, shouting, there was a touch of fondness in her face. Then her features sharpened slightly. She glanced at her customers, as though wondering how long it would be before she could slip

PALTIEL, walking soberly down the street, crowded at this hour of late afternoon, scarcely noted the vendors bawling their wares or the men and women chaffering and chatting while dogs and children dodged in and out. There was the girl tonight, and what would she be like? There was the possibility of war, and would it come?

He hoped it would. When the Canaanites had held the hill country, so his father had told him, they and the Philistines had traded peaceably. These Hebrews, though—turbulent, fanatical, uncivilized—give them an inch and they took a league.

He had come into the great square. He stopped. There, in the open space, pitch-men were crying their goods; here a juggler threw up his colored balls and there a storyteller spun his wondrous yarns. About them all vibrated the restless, the curious, the cosmopolitan throng. His heart swelling with pride, he glanced at the great temple of Dagon. He looked at the theatre area and the great stone steps leading up to the Hall of Council with its two rows of bronze-corseleted soldiers, their broadswords held before them, motionless, points downward.

Gath, city of the Philistines, he thought. Gath, one of the five great cities in which his people lived and worked and played and knew culture, a busy civilization that the Hebrews were incapable of either understanding or appreciating. What chance would those herdsmen, those shepherds have against the disciplined might of the Philistines? Why did the Seren of Gaza, why did any of the Serens hesitate?

Proud, assured, he started through the throng toward the great stone steps.

1ATER, that evening, he sat on Hall i of Council stone steps and wondered if the girl were coming. Dusk had long since fallen. Across the deserted square the temple of the Dagon reared itself into a sky of dark-velvet blue. Did Dagon, he wondered idly, really walk abroad at night? Was his power, when the Philistines went forth to battle, really poured into the statue that was carried with the army, just as the Hebrews believed that their God, Yahweh, put His force into His ark?

And then he saw the girl, hurrying into the square between the temple

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and the theatre. Paltiel got quickly to his feet as he saw her.

“Come,” he said. He slipped an arm about her and found her trembling like a leaf in the wind. It stirred the oddest feeling in him, one he had never experienced before, as though he wanted to protect her. “Come,” he said again, trifle brusquely.

THEY were at a table in a corner of the low-pillared room. At the far side were the steps down which they had come. Across the wall on cushions or against pillars so that none could come up behind them or at low tables like their own were the others who had thronged into this Tavern of the Seven Eyes in the Street of the Roisterers. From the kitchen at the back, carrying goblets filled with wine or Egyptian beer and platters heaped with lamb or sweetmeats or fruits, the slaves bustled to and fro, avoiding the open space. In that open space, to the sound of drums and pipes and strings wailing and throbbing, a troupe of dancers moved in a slow, a sinuous dance out of Egypt.

It was something Huldah had never seen and he watched her as she stared, her eyes wide, her lips half parted.

The music changed. The dancers swung into a swirling, a wilder desert dance. The dancers finished and two boxers came into the centre space, leather helmets on their heads and leather thongs bound over their fists and arms up to the elbows.

Paltiel sensed that Huldah stirred at his side. She spoke. “You haven’t told me yet.”

The boxers had drawn a line and set their toes to it while they waited for the judge’s signal, their left arms extended, their right fists drawn back. “What, little dove?” he asked.

Her fingers had found the amulet he wore about his neck, a tiny golden fish, sacred to Dagon, hung on a golden chain. She played with it.

“Is it peace?”

“No, war.” The boxers sprang into action; from all sides of the cellar there came the shouts and groans of those favoring the one or the other. “War,” he went on. “The Serens of Gaza and Ashdod are against it. They’ll send token forces only. Ekron and Ashkelon, though, are for it. That is enough for Aehish.” He paused and with his free hand lifted his wine cup. “When a man you have trusted, little one, makes a fool of you, as this David has done with Aehish, it leaves a bitter-

There was a little shiver of the body within the circle of his arm and, thinking it was because one boxer had beaten down the other, or, else, perhaps—and even this much modesty was new to Paltiel—because he himself would be off to war, he tightened his grasp.

“Will it be soon?” she asked.

“Even now our messengers ride forth,” he told her, watching the fallen boxer carried off amid curses and cheers. “Soon, soon, these Hebrews will learn that we are the lions and when we roar the jackals slink back to their holes.” “Where will you strike?” she asked. “Up north? Toward Gilboa again?”

It was a natural, an innocent question. He laughed. “That is what the Hebrews would like to know.”

He felt her body stiffen. “You mean you won’t tell me?”

“It is to surprise them,” he explained. “So it must be kept secret.” “But you know?”

“I know.”

Abruptly and decisively she freed he self. She sat up. To his amazement he saw that her eyes were flashing.

“So you think, perhaps,” she said coldly, “that if you tell me, I’ll run off and tell the Hebrews.”

He burst into laughter. He stopped as suddenly. He wished he could tell her. It would make no difference, really. Yet, only the Serens and Aehish knew—the Serens and Aehish and himself.

“Look, little one,” he said, leaning toward her, “because of our chariots the Hebrews dare not meet us in the plain. So we must go into the hills after them. That’s not easy. Our one advantage is that, since they do not know where we will strike, they must keep their forces scattered until we’re upon them. Thus, we can choose our spot and be in the heart of the hills before they can mass to oppose us. Now, do you understand why it must be kept a secret?”

It was as if she hadn’t heard him. He picked up a date that had been dipped in honey. In the centre space the music hit one note and waited till a girl stepped out. She was a slim girl, and bore herself with pride.

“Dioche,” Paltiel explained to Huldah. “She dances the old dances, the dances that centuries ago our ancestors danced in the isle in the Great Sea before the barbarians came.”

Huldah did not answer him; she was as withdrawn as if he were not there. The music began, a measured, stately cadence, and Dioche lifted a knee and pointed a toe and moved. When she danced, Paltiel thought obscurely, it made you think of wind-swept reeds, or of the soft eye-music of graceful, swaying boughs. He slipped his arm about the girl again. It was as though her waist were of bronze.

“Oh, all right,” he said. “You mustn’t breathe it to any—”

“No,” she said. “Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me if it’s such a secret.” “Into the Vale of Rephaim. That’s where we march.”

“You’re just telling me that,” she said, her waist still unyielding. “You could tell me anything and I wouldn’t know. The Vale of Rephaim! Why not to the north where the caravans go? Why not to Gilboa again, through the heart of Israel? You needn’t think I’m that foolish.”

He took away his arm. “Naturally, you are wiser than our generals,” he said coldly. “Naturally you wouldn’t see that this time we must split Israel off from Judah, strike right through to Bethlehem and divide their country and their forces—then crush whichever we will, Judah or Israel, and threaten this Jerusalem as well. Naturally you, a tavern girl, know better than Aehish, King of Gath and victor of Gilboa.” She turned her face to him, and he saw that she was hurt.

“What is it?” he asked. “What troubles you?”

“You called me a tavern-girl! Not joking. Meaning it!”

So that was all the secret had meant

“And I thought you liked me!”

“I do!” he protested, “I do!”

And he did, he realized, completely and devastatingly.

When, late that night, he said farewe'l, it was with the promise that they would meet again.

“Every night until we march,” he said. He kissed her. “Even then it won’t be long. These Hebrews—they cannot stand up to us, the Philistines.” “May you be safe,” she whispered. “Safe.”

IONG after he had gone Huldah J watched the deserted street. Then, wearily, reluctantly, she let herself in. The door of the inner room was open and through it shone a feeble light. She walked in. Her mother, a gaunt, grim woman, raised herself on the pallet bed, on one elbow.

“You found out?” she asked.

Huldah nodded.

“Yahweh be praised. Rut is what you have learned certain?”

“War,” Huldah told her. “Into the Vale of Rephaim. And I am certain, mother.”

In precise terms she explained why. “At once,” the mother said when her daughter had finished. “This must be passed on to Baniat once. Tonight.” “The great gates are closed.”

“Bani will get a man over the wall tonight somehow. Can’t you see, Huldah, if these are the Philistine’s plans, every moment counts?”

The girl sat silent. In this moment she was not so sure either of her mission or of her triumph. She stared at the tiny light of the wick floating in its bath of olive oil.

“I will go,” she said.

IN THE morning the host of the Philistines would march. They sat, Paltiel and Huldah, in the tavern of the Seven Eyes, unaware of other people, the serving-slaves or the dancing-girls.

“We will be on them like wolves,” he boasted to her. “They will flee like sheep.”

Her fingers had found the tiny golden fish, symbol of Dagon. “You’ll be careful? You won’t take risks?”

“I swear it,” he said. “By this fish of Dagon, God of the Deep, I swear it. And now, you swear, too.”

“What should I swear?”

“That you will wait until I return.” “I swear it,” she said. “I swear it.” “Not enough,” he said, half in earnest. “All those men coming into that tavern of yours. No, by this golden fish of Dagon, swear it by that.”

She could not. That was her first panic-stricken thought. She was sworn to her own god, Yahweh, by oath.

“No,” she said. “No. You’ll have to trust me.”

A hot quick flush stained his cheek. He started to get up. “By Dagon, if you’ve been fooling me— ”

“No,” she cried, catching at him and pulling him back. “It’s not that. By Yahweh—”

She stopped, appalled. He stayed where he was, half risen, half sitting, staring down at her.

“A Hebrew!”

“Yes,” she admitted. And then, desperately: “I was going to tell you, I swear it. By Yahweh—”

“So that’s why you questioned me.” he said, the veins in his temple swelling. “That’s why you wanted all the plans, the strategy of Achish.” He sat down and his hand went, to his side and flashed back and there was his dagger point pricking against her skin. “What did you do with what you learned? Tell me!”

“I passed it on,” she whispered.

“Has it reached David?”

“I’m not sure. It ought to have. By this time.”

“I ought to slay you! By Dagon, I will slay you! To pretend you loved me and then-”

He stopped — stared at her. She spread her hands wide.

“Hear me, Paltiel. You know me as a tavern-girl. Once I lived in the hills. Once I played in the dusty street of the tiny village of my birth. And then, one day, the Philistines. I saw my father slashed down. I ran screaming to my mother!”

The dagger was drawn back, reluctantly.

“Afterward, we were herded here,” she went on, her eyes on his face, “my mother and I and the rest of the women and children. We were sold here, as slaves. My mother’s master was kind. After a year or so he set her up in that tavern. But my mother couldn’t forget.

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I couldn’t forget, either. Now, can you understand?”

His forehead was corrugated. What was he to do? he asked himself desperately. Achish had confided in him; should he tell Achish that, unwittingly, he had betrayed him? He could imagine how Achish would look at him from those heavy-lidded eyes.

It was like death to imagine Perhaps, he caught at the hope, the message to David had not got through. Or, if it had, was it so terrible? The main thing was to meet the Hebrews in battle. That was what Achish himself had said. In battle, as at Gilboa, Achish had said, their army would cut through them as though they were the cheese of the goats the Hebrews milked. No, he could risk not telling.

He got up heavily. He stared down at Huldah, thinking with part of his mind that he ought to have remembered how many of the Hebrews, over the long decades, had infiltrated Gath.

“I shall not slay you,” he said. “But when I return—” He paused and then the words rushed forth. “I was going to wed with you. Wed with you! Now, by Dagon, when I return, I shall buy you from your master. You shall be my bond-maid, not my wife!”

She looked up at him, steadily. “Gladly will I be your bond-maid, my beloved, so long as Yahweh brings you back to me. That is all I ask. Let Yahweh bring you back!”

PALTIEL shouted to the panting horses. Fiercely, unswervingly, he drove them on to the ranks of the lean, grim-bearded men who barred the way to Gath. Behind him came all that were left of the other chariots. There was a crash and then they were amidst the Hebrews, the horses kicking and plunging, Paltiel stabbing with the blood-stained spear in his right hand, and behind him Achish slashing right and left with his great broadsword. Suddenly they were through and the other chariots with them and this mass of Hebrews at least was shattered.

Paltiel reined up the almost exhausted horses on the crest of the saddle of ground. He started to wheel

“Wait,” Achish said.

Paltiel looked at his king. The golden helmet was dented, the golden plumes on the one side had been shorn off, and the bronze corselet was slashed and hacked.

It was the face that held Paltiel’s gaze. The King of Gath was a majestic man, a man whose face never betrayed emotion. At this moment, though, as he looked back at the battle, that face was distorted and anguished.

Paltiel looked back, too. Down there, in the swell of the valley, hemmed in by the stony, pitiless hills, the proud host of the Philistines was melting away. Many of them littered the ground between here and Bethlehem. A few clusters were still fighting and the hot sun winked on points of steel. But the main mass of the footmen was already dissolved in flight, throwing away their arms, a panic-stricken horde streaming toward the way of escape that chariots had just opened. On their flanks and rear the hillmen hung like wolves.

It sent a rush of blood to Paltiel’s head, so bitter was it to see. Once again he started to jerk the horses round. Achish stayed him and his face was calm again.

“No use, Paltiel. The battle is lost. All we can do is to keep open the way of escape.”

The weight of his guilt, unconfessed, was almost more than he could bear. When, a fortnight ago, they had flooded into the Vale of Rephaim and found the Hebrews forewarned—the villages deserted, the flocks and herds driven off, the wells fouled, all sustenance for man and beast destroyed—he had wanted to tell.

There had still been a hope. Let the battle but come.

There was no battle. There were arrows and flung stones and javelins from behind every rock and shrub and when you charged the men were not there. There were sudden swoops from the gullies and down the rocky slopes to cut and slash and away again where the chariots could not follow. There were raids by night.

They had pressed on. They had seized Bethlehem. Ravaging far and

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wide, they had tried to force, to tempt the Hebrews to massed battle until, supplies exhausted, Achish had reluctantly given the order to withdraw. And then, suddenly, today, the Philistines drawn out in long column, the massed might of David had poured down the hills on either side, fierce howling men that kept their ranks. It was the Philistines who had broken, not the hillmen.

The first rush of fugitives reached the saddle and swept on over it, running like rabbits for Gath. The shame of it made Paltiel grit his teeth. Back there, too, were their gods, sitting on the wagons that had brought them.

“Can we not do anything?” he begged of Achish.

The king shook his head. “One charge, perhaps. One charge to make those Hebrews pause. That is all.”

To go back to Gath, beaten, Paltiel was thinking. To face Huldah, to see in her eyes that Yahweh, her God, had triumphed. To know that the Philistines, for all their splendor, their vaunted civilization, had grown too weak, too soft to defend themselves.

“Now, I think,” Achish said. He raised his sword as Paltiel wheeled the horses. He shouted to his chariots. One or two began to turn around reluctantly.

“One charge,” Achish shouted powerfully. “Let these Hebrews see that there are still men among the Philis-

“Look,” someone shouted. “Look!”

They looked. Farther down the pass toward Gath, among a clump of mulberry trees on the right, was a glimmer of arms.

“The Hebrews,” someone shouted. And another cried, “They will cut us off.”

And suddenly, as if at a signal, there was a rattling of wheels, a clattering of grooves as the chariots, too, were off, plunging, panic-stricken, toward Gath. Achish looked at the Hebrews, who had

paused to form ranks before they faced the chariots.

“If David had not been forewarned,” he said, as though to himself. And then to Paltiel: “Drive back, Paltiel.” It was abruptly too much. Deliberately, quietly Paltiel gave the reins to Achish. He took up his spear and picked up his shield. He got down without a word. Steadily, step by step, he went down the slope toward the grim ranks that waited. Achish watched him a moment. Then, with a sigh, he turned the steeds. He started back toward Gath.

IT WAS in his third campaign that David, the Anointed of Yahweh, captured Gath, chief city of the Philistines. What his feelings were as he rode, conqueror, through the gates of the city to which he had once come a friendless fugitive or, when at the top of the steps of the Hall of Council, he descried the dead body of Achish, once his benefactor, no one of his entourage could tell. But among the Hebrews of Gath who had gathered in the great square, triumphant, to welcome the Sweet Singer, the Favored of the Lord, was one girl who, as she looked, did not know how she felt. There was the triumph of her people and of Yahweh who had proved himself the one true God. There was vengeance, too, vengeance on this proud race for that terrible day in the hill village years ago, and she’d had a part in bringing that vengeance to pass.

But there was Paltiel, dead.

Was it a sin to have loved Paltiel? Was it a sin to think of him now?

She did not know. Yet, as she turned blindly to her mother and felt her mother’s arms around her and heard her mother whispering: “Now— now we shall return to Israel,” there was a wonder in her heart if Paltiel, alive, would not have been worth all the vengeance, all the triumph.

She did not know. She could never know, ir