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There was an ancient city, lofty with its high walls, inhabited by the Chaldees, lying in the region where the sun rises. Semiramis is said to have first fortified it, and with good reason to have named it High Babylon. It was then the capital of the world, now it lies on the shore as a nameless ruin.
Here dwelt Joachim, the worthiest of citizens. No man in Babylon was wealthier, nor more just. He chanced to have a wife, whose fame stretched to heaven because of her chastity, called Susanna by her people. Painstakingly and with piety her excellent parents had instructed her in the Law of Moses and god’s commandments. No Babylonian girl was fairer than she, none was more chaste. The wife was worthy of her husband, the husband worthy of his wife. At that time both could be seen to be blessed in their marriage, you certainly could both be seen to be blessed in your marriage. But a dark cloud overwhelmed this sunny sky, their ocean was roughened by clouds, for her beauty aroused many men’s lust, and snares were set against the rights of chaste wedlock. Like a shadow, foul desire follows after modesty, and the jealous Fates deny us the ability to lead tranquil lives with no turmoil.
Joachim was wealthy and his name was well known throughout the city. For a crowd of dependents always filled his house, to which chanced to be adjoined a garden having many apple trees. It was there that he was in the habit of issuing decisions to the people when they consulted him on doubtful points of the Law.
For, in accordance with custom, in that year were created shepherds of the people, of the sort God had ordained through the mouths of the prophet. At Babylon impiety had its beginnings among the elders, and proceeded first of all from these judges charged with governing the people. And these men above all others, Joachim, frequented your house, either because they had need of your hospitality, or because they needed your illumination and instruction — men who were most unworthy for your fairest consort to see, or to love, even if she had wished to love someone.
But when the sun had passed its zenith, while, according to her custom, Susanna was strolling in the garden, coming under the branches’ cool shade, the elders both glimpsed her and both were inflamed, they both burned in their minds, not otherwise than if someone lights sulfer-dipped torches and sets afire the parched cornstalks. Oh, how often they craved to approach her with gentle words and ply her with their soft entreaties! Now this impulse drove them headlong towards crime, now they hoped that she could be swayed, or corrupted with gold. Hope, unwholesome desire, and fear agitated their minds. They were ashamed to speak, afraid to apply violence, and were ignorant of how to begin, scarcely able to restrain their minds’ insanity. The more they espied her, the more they burned with fire. Everything served as a stimulant: if Susanna happened to pluck an apple, or idly ate one she had picked, they praised her as she did the picking, they admired the dainty way she ate. Or if she culled some flowers, they thought she did so with grace.
Oh, the shame of it! Did this madness suit their gray hairs? Is the concern of old men? Have not your exhausted old age, your pious hoariness, your snowy beards, divine vengeance, the infamy of such a deed, fear of punishment, or reverence for your office and the honorable position in which you have been placed, any power to stop this lunatic frenzy? Have they no power (and indeed they have great power) to change your minds? Oh gods, to what does not shameful lust compel mortal hearts? What crime does crazed lust not dare? Shamefully it dazzles men’s eyes, cheating their senses with vain hallucinations, and darkens the light of the mind as water totally quenches a lantern, completely unhinging the intelligence.
The fire kept on growing, and greater ardor stole through their bones as the flame kindled their marrow. They fell headlong in love. Now they imagined the woman could be convinced what it was,now the fact she was beautiful appeared to offer them hope, now her age and the easy lust of youth promised something. But Susanna’s indomitable, proven fidelity, reserved exclusively for her husband, showed that she could not be convinced. They were driven by furies on both sides, unsure what to do. They hoped, they feared a rebuff, they fixed their eyes on the ground, not raising them to heaven, having no heed for God, Who rewards everything according to its merits, the most just avenger of crimes. But when they had gazed enough and had fed their eyes on the beauty they craved, one of them said, “We have stood here long enough.” “Let us go,” said the other, and they hastened to leave the house. But each did not perceive the other’s furtive love.
They returned on the morrow, and Susanna chanced to be mentioned. The more ardent of the two, unable to withstand his craving, said, “Assuredly she is most fair,” and, with a glum expression, added, “and most chaste. Who can be unmoved by her beauty, her complexion, which mixes the rosy with the pale, with her fair countenance, her fingers, her snow white cheeks, her yellow hair? Her appearance is certainly worthy. I should be made of iron, I should be said to have been nourished by the milk of a shaggy lioness, and not be called a man, if I denied she has moved me. May I die if it would not be a great gift for me to see her again — and what would it be worth to touch her? but it has helped to have seen her, for the sight of her has invigorated my old age, which regains its strength by looking upon her.”
Thus the elder of the two said softly, and the other said in turn, “These qualities you extol, which would be praiseworthy in a very enemy, have moved me too, and I should think I was begotten by wolves or tigers of monstrous wildness, if I did not confess these things to have touched me. And if this idea pleases your mind, what need of words? Certainly we must try her, let every die be cast. Why should our useless advanced years hinder us? Even if our old age is chill, even if our skin is wrinkled, and even if the familiar prizes of Venus belong especially to youth, something cold can sometimes catch fire, the freezing winter is often warmed by the sun. But though it be called chill, our old age also has a bit of warmth, and a small spark remains from that great fire. Only cleverness is needed. Fortune assists bold deeds. So come, let us make experiment if perchance we can sway her by our entreaties. Surely we can break her with threats. this is the way. Ah, away with all shame and fear.”
These ancient gaffers are reported to have said such things, or at least to have felt them. The opportunity for this crime was favorable for both, they were both pleased by the idea, it came to pass. Often, Joachim, they came to your house early in the day, often they departed much later than the time they had been wont to leave. They took counsel what time they might find Susanna alone, with no witness for the crime, they kept her under observation to discover whether she was indoors or outside, noting her comings and goings, whether she went far from home or lingered nearby, and ascertained the time of her return. They investigated everything thoroughly lest she be able to elude them, not otherwise than two fierce cats keep watch at a mousehole when protracted hunger, feeding frenzy, and craving for blood goad them to anger, and they pad about silently, curling their tails, and they peer keenly, standing with ears pricked up.
Nor was good fortune lacking for their undertaking. As was her custom, Susanna came into the garden, accompanied by two handmaidens, in order to bathe her body. For the sun happened to be exceedingly warm that day, scorching the land with its fierce light. And when they had come there she said, “Every onlooker is far away. Hasten, maids, fetch the soap and oil for washing my limbs. Shut the gates behind us.” They did as they were bidden and locked the doors with a heavy bar. But they happened to tarry longer than usual, either out of slothful negligence or because chance thus arranged it. But assuredly you both tarried.
In the meanwhile Susanna had discarded her soft garment and was splashing her white limbs with the pellucid water, saying, “all masculine eyes, go far from hence,” not knowing that masculine eyes had seen her nakedness.
There was a shady grove, dense with arbute and reeds, inaccessible to the beams of the sun, where the cloud of branches cast a dark shadow. The greater part of this gave onto the garden. Here the elders were concealed, and when they had seen Susanna casting about her limbs and laving her ivory neck, combing her hair, now washing her shining legs, now striking her breast with cupped hands, they grew warm in their minds, and were not long able to withstand the heat. Then they both rushed out, leaving behind their lair.
What was your expression and mind, poor Susanna, when you saw these things? With what veil should I think you would have covered yourself, if the elders had not forestalled you and seized you as you were sitting? Surely she blushed, but her blushing injured her as it gave them additional fuel. For just as an apple on a tree, hanging high on its branch, reddens in the rising sun, so you could have seen her face flush, and she was never seen to be fairer. And they pressed themselves on her, no slower than a couple of fierce lions in a rocky glen, attacking a tender calf in the absence of the cowherd. They laid their hands on her flanks, planting criminal kisses on the unwilling girl, wrapping their arms around her neck. They handled her tender arms, her breast, her hands, her hair. Love made them eloquent and gave them sprightly youth. You would think that they had attained and then lost their old age. Who can recall their entreaties? The thing involved much wheedling, but she was unmoved by any of their pleas, and she did not hear any of their speeches with compliance.
The elders perceived this and were unsure whether to employ prayers or threats, or whether it was better to abandon the undertaking and beat a retreat. But they decided not to leave in this way, and it chagrined them to accept a woman’s rejection. Or perhaps she was dissimulating, for a woman often first rejects that which she would prefer to seek herself; or because (they reckoned) a cypress tree, albeit a tall one, is uprooted by frequent winds, and thus an impregnable heart can be swayed by assiduous entreaties; or, finally, they may have persisted in the attempt because they were distraught in their minds. And so the elder of the two said, “See, the gates are locked. What mishap do you fear? Alas, you alone are over-harsh and refuse us. What vulgar tale creates scruples for you, what concern for injured chastity? This bashfulness is an ornament in virgins, this sin is to be feared by unmarried girls. But illicit pleasure is concealed under the name of wife. Beauty and fidelity do not accord with each other or sit well in the same heart: the one shuns love, the other invites it. So come now, abandon these delays and grant our prayers. If you are so demented as to refuse, we will both solemnly swear and bear witness that a young man has concealed himself in these shadows and has lain with you in these trees’ cool shade.”
At first Susanna was amazed by the novelty of this wickedness. She stood immobile, staring at the ground, looking about carefully and pondering the various things she might do: should she succumb to the elders’ shameful lust or flatly deny them? Fear discouraged her from the one choice, God from the other. Finally, raising her bashful face to the stars, “Alas, what am I to do?” she said. “How should I make a beginning? What should I follow? See how the baleful Fates confront me with a forked road: either I must meet sure death and bear the stain of sin in my innocence, or lead a disgraceful life, worse than death. You urge me to take the one course, but my mind bids me take the other and summons me to die. It is enough to have avoided an evil crime by my death. Even if I do not avoid the penalty, if I die free of sin it is well to have died, and my consolation will be not to have deserved this agony. For let the ground open up and swallow me down to the shades, hiding me beneath Tartarus, or may the almighty Father burn me alive with His lightning and send this hateful person to the Underworld, before I violate you, Chastity, or loosen your restraints. Let that man to whom my chastity was first pledged keep my heart, let my husband learn of my chaste love, let my shade depart from here untainted by guilt. But you, fruit of these trees, and fountain, who knows of this deed, and you, oh sun, glory of the sky and light of this earth, who have never seen a more wicked crime and so have hidden yourself behind a cloud, and you, feathery birds, bear witness, and always attest to my undeserved death.”
She spoke, stretched forth her neck, and emitted a scream. Learn, women, to make your voices loud — but not when there is need to silence your chattering tongues! The elders also cried out and redoubled Susanna’s noise with their equally shrill voices. Then one of the two knocked the bar off the gate, thus increasing the din. The servants burst in, wondering at the cause of such a ruckus. And the elders answered their questions in turn with their harsh mouths, not without great oaths, both making fierce grimaces. When they heard the elders’ tale the servants were amazed. Although they were afraid of everything in their doubtfulness, they preferred to believe anything rather than that Susanna was tainted by the blot of adultery. For, although she was comely, and throughout the city outshone the other girls as the moon shines among the lesser stars, nonetheless she had a reputation for chastity more than for beauty.
As soon as the following day had dawned, routing the stars, and rumor of the affair had spread throughout the city, a crowd gathered from all directions, the irrepressible commons thronged together in the expectation of a trial. One faction, led on by the elders’ rumor, thought she was worthy of death, another faction had a milder opinion, a third denied that she had sinned, and another, impressed by her comeliness, thought that she ought to be forgiven for her beauty; yet another wanted to veto this motion, and the crowd muttered in uncertainty.
The elders rose up and, with the mob standing about, one of them said, “bailiff, produce Susanna!” She immediately appeared, attended by a crowd of kinsmen. Her children walked by her side, her husband behind her, then her father and mother followed, dressed in mourning, as in modesty she hid her face with a fine veil. but the elders bade her unveil herself so that least the sight of her eyes could lessen their ardor and the beams of her concealed beauty could dazzle their sight. Then her kinsmen set up a weeping and a wailing. Who could remain unmoved by her face, her decorous tears, the children crying for their mother, the parents for their child, and the lugubrious, black-clad husband for his wife? But she stood still, her eyes directed to heaven, filled with hope, and prayed silently to God.
The elders continued as they had begun, and although even wild bears would have wept, they alone are said to have chuckled and to have attested their cruel delight with their happy countenances. In the customary way they set their hands on Susanna’s head, and then the elder of the two addressed the populace:
“Beloved citizens, learn of an unspeakable crime, hear of a concealed sin, such as nobody could readily believe, save that I myself chanced to witness it. We saw it ourselves, when it chanced that, exhausted by yesterday’s tumults, we took our ease in a tranquil garden to relax our weary limbs. This woman, accompanied by two girls, entered, and when she had peered about and decided the place was empty, she said ‘You two, depart quickly.’ Then she barred the doors and shut the gates, hoping herself to be secure. She stripped the soft clothes from off her body and, far friskier than a kidling, she assumed a thousand postures as she played in the pure water. And without delay a handsome lad of vigorous frame sprang forth, who had deliberately kept hidden in the shade of the trees. He, already a practiced adulterer and familiar with the place, being no stranger to the vicinity, approached her with conversation scarce timid, and threw his arms around her neck. And she willingly gave, and now received, disgraceful kisses, and, easily overcome, did not refuse to be touched. Why delay? They lay down together, and who does not know the rest? Unable to tolerate this unspeakable outrage in our indignant minds, we burst in with trepidation, but he, relying on youth’s strength and his feet, ran off, swifter than the East wind. We, defeated in this foot race (for old age, sluggish by nature, is not quick) finally caught her. When she asked the boy’s name, she refused us, and kept her silent love in her heart. This, citizens, is the crime, this is the sum of our complaint. Lo, we are present as witnesses to the deed, and it seems that all that remains is that you impose a punishment fit for such a crime.”
How easy it is not to betray a crime behind a false expression, how little trustworthiness is in a face! How many lurking-places the human mind finds! A snake lurks in the green grass, and lies are concealed by the false appearance of truth. The populace was swayed by the elders’ speeches. And with their deceived votes they clamored that wicked Susanna should be punished by death. Condemned, she wet her bosom with welling tears, offering up these prayers from an unhappy heart:
“Almighty Father, mankind’s judge, king of the gods, do You witness these events with those just eyes which see all things? Does that great concern for Your handmaiden remain that is accustomed to exist for Your people? You Who can see into abysses, Who can see into the hidden places of sea and earth, Who can foresee the future, to Whom all the secrets of the deep are open, do You see these things? Does anything of our mortal affairs touch You? You have seen each detail, and this sentence does not deceive me. Lo, I must die, having committed no crime such as they cast in my teeth and confirm upon their blood-oath.”
The Almighty heard her saying such things and sighing deeply.“” For when she was on the point of paying the penalty for this crime with her death, wondrous to relate, He inspired with His divine frenzy a humble boy named Daniel. Of a sudden he loudly cried out, “I am innocent of this bloodshed.” The throng was amazed at the boy, and asked what this statement meant. The boy responded,
“Oh citizens, are you so foolish of mind as rashly to condemn a fellow citizen to death in such a doubtful affair, without any clear evidence? Reconvene the trial, for you have acted wrongfully, and lying witnesses have lodged a false accusation.”
They were astonished of mind, and at his bidding the crowd hastened to resume their former places. They told the boy to take an adult’s seat, since God had made him His agent and filled his mind with divine inspiration. “Separate the elders,” Daniel said, “so that I may better examine each individually.” Immediately they did his bidding, and the boy summoned the first of the two in order of seniority, and thus began to berate him:
“Aged old man, your perjury and your mind, guilty of such a monstrous deed, condemn you. What point is there in hoping to hide this crime from men? Did you think you could thus deceive God? But tell me, pray, under the shade of what kind of tree did you see them?” He replied, “I saw them under the protection of a shade palm.” “False man,” responded the boy, “you lie against your own head. Behold, an angel of the Lord awaits you with drawn sword, who will cut your wicked body in half.”
And when he had been removed the other was produced, and to him the boy said, “Offspring of Canaan, no child of Judah, beauty overcame your eyes, insane lust your mind, compelling you to sin, robbing you of your wits. You have condemned innocent people, nor have god’s most holy precepts moved you at all. You have abandoned all shame and burned continually with unrequited lust. But come, you have seen this, and your eyes did not deceive you. Tell me where. Under what kind of tree were they seen?” He said under a plum. And Daniel answered him in this fashion, “Lo, you will receive a suitable reward for your lying tongue. Behold, an angel of the Lord awaits you with drawn sword, who will cut your body in half, you rascal.”
The heavens rang with a loud outcry as the people rejoiced. Now you could have seen the elders’ faces grow whiter than ash as they humbly confessed their guilt — now they spoke less harshly! The crowd redoubled its din, thick clouds of incense rose towards heaven, and old and young alike thanked You in their hearts, great God. And they shed the wocked blood of the elders. Joachim and Susanna went away joyfully.
Lucky pair! If my song has any power, no day shall ever erase you from the memory of the ages.
I wrote Susanna as an undergraduate