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ACT II, SCENE i
Absalom vigorously denies these accusations and asks permission to go to Hebron. His father gladly grants his request, especially because he pleads the excuse of making a sacrificial offering in order to fulfil a vow.
Enter David and Absalom, conversing.
ABS. Absalom grasp at his father’s crown? Father, it’s to easy for brothers to fall to quarrelling. My brothers are jealous because Lucina first opened the gates of light to me. I pray you close your royal ears to these abominable whispers.
DAV. I am not a suspicious man, but I’m freely telling you what rumor is broadcasting.
ABS. You trust that two-tongued goddess? You refuse to believe your son? Would that I were still an exile from my family’s palace and were leading bitter days, and nights more bitter than the days! For me, exile would be a reward, not a punishment. As a son, did I come home at my father’s bidding so that his court would be harder on me than exile? (He kneels.) You Who Alone with a careful eye beholds everything in the chaos of our secret minds, Who scans everything, tell me, am I prematurely seeking my father’s throne? If You see my mind to be guilty of so great a sin, use Your forked lightning to plunge my person intp deepest Tartarus. (Wipes away his tears.)
DAV. Your tears are very eloquent. Get up, son, and come into the embrace you so eagerly seek. Lying rumor has stained your honor, your heart has been free of blemish.
ABS. If you doubt me, Father, use your steel to open up my heart’s inmost recesses, where you will only find the marks of love graven on my fiber.
DAV. David cut Absalom’s life-thread? Oh, may such impiety be far, far removed! I paid too much attention to exaggerating rumor. When a malignant rumor goes a-flying, it gains fresh wings. The two-tongued goddess bewitched me with the lying report of her bugle. This is the life of kings: they tremble like a slender stalk of grain when nothing needs be feared. But why reopen an old wound? Ask your father for anything you desire, my son. Even if you wish the scepter to be shared, with you I’ll gladly share it.
ABS. I do not like the glitter of the crown, but rather the brilliance of my father. May you be late in ascending to the stars, to which you are akin, even if heaven often summons you. Long may you grant laws for Jordan’s people, and when when the supernal beings bid you exchange this earth for heaven, may you leave the weight of the crown to other men, just make Absalom the heir to your glory. But you won’t deny me this one thing, Father. When you removed me from my paternal soil, I offered up prayers in profusion at the holy altars, and at that time I appointed Hebron to receive my victims. Heaven did not turn a deaf ear to my prayers, and so, Father, let the walls of Hebron rejoice in the fat of the victims I owe them.
DAV. Make your journey with good omens.
ABS. I’ll offer up clouds of Arabian incense at the altars, Father, praying that we may long enjoy the sight of each other. (Exit.)
ACT II, SCENE ii
Abathar and Zadok tell David of the various portents they have seen. Joab and his captains urge him to ignore them. The king bids the priests appease heaven’s anger with sacrifices.
DAV. Absalom’s tongue is sweeter than a honeycomb of Hymettus. Heavenly Father, grant that he is not hiding a snake beneath his fresh blossom. [Enter the priests.]
ABATH. August ruler of Lebanon, glory of our heroes, the stars are telling of an uncommon evil. I have seen, I myself have seen (and my heart is still quaking) a double Phoebus riding double chariots through the blue sky, both shooting darts that fell as thick as hail. But, alas, a trinity of arrows consumed the bright substance of one of them. It rolled along on its car, but was caught by its own hair.
ZAD. A comet still remains in my eye, which just now scourged the house of Jerusalem with its savage tail. (He shows David some blood in a vial). But that’s a small thing. Heaven is showing its anger with a display of blood. Behold how generously blood has rained on our rooftops.
DAV. Alas, the heat of war draws close. This blood portends wars. I recognize the just handiwork of a vengeful heaven. It will strike me, not undeservedly. Ruler of the stars, You may decree bites of iron claws, crucifixions, and a thousand faces of death, as long as henceforth You spare me. (Enter Joab and the others.)
JOAB Oh king, salvation of Idumaea, pillar of our realm, don’t let these idle portents disturb your sleep. Whoever is protected by heaven’s shield is safe.
ABISAI If the fields of the Philistines bristle once more with their legions, once more they will feel the lighting of your arm.
ETHAI Let Goliath tell his people with what a great storm of the black Thunder I beat down their vines.
BANAIAS The God who has once crowned your head with victorious laurel can bind your locks again with those leaves of Delos.
DAV. Heaven has given me laurels, but now it offers me the cypress.
JOAB Beware, your words of ill-omen make my captains downcast. My soldiers will lose heart if you yourself don’t show a cheerful demeanor. What song have the priests been singing you? Are you a-tremble before the bugle has sounded? [To the priests.] If ever the clamor of terrible Mars resounds, your duty is to appease the gods by prayer, while we stand at our sovereign’s side to protect him.
DAV. Captains of war fight in the field, but priests fight at home. A priest fights with prayers, and, unarmed, very often lays low masses of the enemy. A soldier fights too, but protected by brass and bristling with steel. Joshua bested Amalek because Moses lifted up his hands to the stars. Beat on the gods’ covered ears with your prayers, overcome heaven with your suppliant gifts, and perhaps God will sheathe His drawn sword.
ABATH. A snow-white victim will soon strike the ground. (Exit the priests.)
ABISAI The high priest recounted how two suns competed in the sky. And yet a single downfall did not overwhelm them both. The one grew lifeless, entangled in its own hair, but heaven sang a happy victory-hymn for the other. The victorious Phoebus represented your triumph.
ETHAI Nor am I terrified by the tail of the baleful comet. Whoever saw a torch bound with terror? These strike me as being the visions of a diseased old woman.
DAV. God reveals the secrets of His heart to whomever He wishes. Let us offer up the sacrifice of a river of tears to the Judge of life and death. Tears wrench the lightning out of God’s hand even as He is hurling it. (Exeunt.)
THE FIRST INTERLUDE
ACT II, SCENA iii
Learning of the new rebellion, David entrusts himself to divine providence. He warns his sons not to imitate their brother’s example.
DAV. You darling and glory of heaven, do not require the people to atone for the unspeakable sins of their king. Here you see the seed of ruin. (Pointing to himself.) Burn me, burn me with the lightning of Your ruddy hand, and let Jerusalem live. What have the innocent youth of Palestine done to deserve it? Rather let David be the target of the arrows in Your quiver. With justice the innocent blood of Uriah, shed by me, seeks out my blood. But it is a small thing to pay atonement to You with a single life. If I had a thousand, I gladly give You a thousand, as long as You give me one back to pour forth once more. (Enter Banaias.)
BAN. We’re ruined! Absalom has gained control of the citadel of Hebron. Israel is following the deadly call of his trumpet, the impious son has taken up arms against his father. (Enter a messenger.)
MESS. The traitorous Achitophel has abandoned your camp, and dedicated his fortune, his wealth and life to your son. (Enter a second messenger.)
MESS. 2 Amasa is leading new cohorts, the shaking fields are heaving under the brazen spokes of his wheels.
DAV. I gladly return to God the crown He first gave me. The boy will overwhelm my battalions with his numbers. We must defer to the way the wind is blowing. Go, befoul your heads with the ashes of mourning, beat your breasts as an eloquent sign of your heart’s sorrow.
MESS. 1 May heaven’s wings protect Zion’s sovereign. (Exit the messengers, enter David’s sons.)
ADON. I wasn’t a false prophet, was I, father? Didn’t I sing my oracles from a truth-telling tripod? I perceived Absalom’s too high-flying spirit. Use force to repel force, father.
DAV. Your brother’s camp spews forth too numerous bands for that.
SOL. And yet he soldiers who adhere to you are superior in virtue. But if your captains prefer an inglorious safety to your welfare, you see us two walls standing before their father.
DAV. Yet piety is a better wall. He who obeys the laws of heaven defends his parents.
ADON. I shall be obeying heaven’s laws if my father’s life is purchased by my death.
DAV. Rather let him die who was the cause of such great destruction.
SOL. Let our brother who sowed the first seeds of this sorrow die, so that his father may surpass the years of Nestor.
DAV. Rather let my son Absalom live on, and let David, responsible for this great tempest, die. I have allowed him too loose a rein in his unstable youth. You should learn from your father’s mistakes. A bad tree gives bad fruit. Learn from both the examples of your father and your brother, both of whom are immersed in such great evils, how impressionable youth is for the bad, if it is not steeped in the goodly arts. Time prevents me from giving you further advice. (Enter Joseph and Benjamin.)
ACT II, SCENE iv
Learning of their father’s defection, Joseph and Benjamin humbly fall at David’s feet and humbly beseech him on their own behalf. The king consoles them.
JOS. Great king, as a suppliant I worship your feet. You have before you victims eager to stain your axe. I will gladly trade my life for my father’s.
BEN. It is a sign of royal spirit to let harmful wrongs sink in the waters of Lethe. My father is caught up in youth’s ardent passion, he does not know how to be ruled. You should not consider what my father’s shameful crime deserves, but rather what befits David. Imitate the King of Heaven. He does not hurl His missiles as often as blind mankind invites His lightning by its sins. The wrath of God can be provoked, but it is mild.
DAV. Lift both your eyes and your knees from the ground. Sons need not atone for the sins of their fathers. Often thorns thrust forth roses. I’ll be a better father to you. When their fathers steer their ships backward, if they come creeping to me as suppliants they will renew their favor.
JOS. Let other kings tame proud nations, you tame your friends. It is glorious to put down rebels, but better to spare a subject. This favor will be engraved in my mindful heart.
BEN. Even if our father’s hearts are harder than adamant, nevertheless, overcome by your goodness, they will abandon their iron character.
DAV. Remain at Jerusalem, other Fates call me away. I must defer to this tempest until it is broken by its own strength.
ADON. Even if you climb icebound Mt. Caucasus, even if you visit Memnon’s scorching home, you will find your sons ready to join you on your journey. (Exeunt.)
THE SECOND INTERLUDE
ACT II, SCENE v
Before taking flight, David advises his captains to spare Absalom’s life, should they capture him. Ethai chooses to follow his king. Chusai is commanded to remain and baffle Achitophel’s counsel with his own.
They enter, dressed in mourning.
DAV. I like your dress, which matches our destiny. I like it that your hair is befouled by ashes, not inappropriately. Let our weapons be prayers, stronger than adamant. Fleeing is no disgrace, since we conquer by flight. It is sinful to fight against the will of heaven. Thus far, bloodshed has never discouraged heroes. War, hunger, and the face of death have paved the way to heaven for a thousand great-hearted men. High-spirited virtue cleaves to the rough crag: join me in climbing to the peak, hedged with thorns.
JOAB I admit that the mountain-side is craggy, but the summit itself is crowned by violets, roses and lilies.
ABIS. The rigor of stern winter is banished by the more pleasant change to springtime. The gentler breeze of a fragrant zephyr puts to rout the north wind’s wrath, and more favorable times often follow after adversity.
ETH. You see that we are your companions in both conditions. If you can endure the cloudy threats of that treacherous goddess Fortune, so can we.
DAV. But don’t entrust yourselves to the hazard of doubtful battle. Just enter my hospitable home.
ETH. David, his cheeks adorned by blood and dust, will lay low throngs of his enemy while I stay at Jerusalem? No day will ever see me so ignoble.
DAV. But at least let your home retain you, Chusai. You must act the part of a two-faced Ulysses. Pretend that you too worship the brilliance of his sunrise. When Achitophel bestirs his heart, so pregnant with wisdom, you must baffle his words with your own.
CHUS. May Grace water my flourishing eloquence with her persuasive nectar!
DAV. I need not remind you, you lights of Zion, to stretch forth your friendly hand to Jerusalem. A priest will support collapsing Jerusalem on his shoulders.
ABATH. We shall be a pair of columns.
ZAD. Have no fear, virtue will command your legions, while the puffed-up boy collapses under the mass of his own helpless weight.
DAV. But you sons of Mars, my heroes, since the bugle of civil war calls my subjects to arms, when Bellona makes her chariot wheels warm with our blood, then you must spare my Absalom.
JOAB When my swordpoint grows hot with blood it cannot be bridled. Yet I must obey you.
DAV. The times forbid high spirits, my sons, and we must heed the times. (They kneel).Oh Ruler of the world, You Who gives scepters and takes them away, I humbly set my crown at Your feet. I can look on the golden beams of the crown without averting my eyes, but this bit of shining mud dazzles my son’s sight. Let the father resign this colorful trash, let the son snatch the scepter, as long as he does not steal the love of You from out of my heart. (They arise.)
NATH. The enemy comes flying with his hastening platoons, so abandon these delays, my sovereign.
DAV. I shall follow the stars, Nathan, as long as I follow you.
ACT II, SCENE vi
Semei curses David. David tolerates this with patience.
SEM. (Throwing stones.) Go, you Bethelemite shepherd of the butting flock. Go, you lazybones, be a leech and drink all your kingdom’s blood. (His lords draw their swords.) Punishment will follow you on no limping foot. Your son is deservedly snatching your crown, the crown which you have preciously snatched from Saul’s head with that harmful hand of yours. (Throws again.) Go, seek once more the wives of a stinking captain.
ABIS. (Rushing at him as if to stab him.) You victim consecrated to Dis!
DAV. Stay your hand, Abisai. The Ruler of heaven is bidding him spew forth against me his heart’s foul poison. Continue to inflict new wounds on David.
SEM. You wretch, you’re caught on every side. Lachesis’ harsh threads bind you, no matter what direction you take. Oh the cheering! Oh this day, deserving to be added to heaven’s calendar! How your misery gratifies me!
ETH. (Dashes at him with drawn sword.) I’ll cut the tongue out of this three-throated old man.
DAV. Stop. If I spare him, perhaps heaven will spare me. Depart, go your way with good omens.
SEM. (Throwing agains.) Annd may a screech-owl’s wing guide you. (Exeunt.)
Go to Act III