Jaroslav Vrchlický4025408Famous Stories From Foreign Countries — Abisag1921Edna Worthley Underwood


Jaroslav Vrchlický, whose real name is Emil Frida, is a significant personality in modern Bohemian literature.

He was born m 1853. He studied at various secondary schools and later attended the University of Prague. Here he devoted himself almost exclusively to theology and philosophy, and then—thanks to the generosity of Count Montecuccoli-Laderchi—traveled for a time in Italy.

In 1893 he was made Professor of Modern Literature in the University of Prague, of which he became one of the most distinguished figures.

His fertility as a writer is so unusual that it can not be passed over in silence. He has published many books of lyric verse, dramatic verse, stories in prose, and translations from many languages, including the work of English and American writers. He has given his countrymen versions of Schiller, Dante, Ariosto, Victor Hugo, Leopardi, and Provençal and Spanish poets.

The story Abisag, which we give, is from the collection of prose tales entitled Bits of Colored Glass. Vrchlický died in 1912.


King David lay upon a royal couch of cypress wood. From the ceiling swung huge receptacles carved of bronze, from which the smoke of burning perfumes rose, and whose dim, wavering light, showed carven cedarn walls and a ceiling starred with plaques of gold.

The night was warm and windless. From the city from time to time one could hear the measured tread of watchmen, and the clang of swords; from the vineyards that swept about Jerusalem like a girdle of green, came the voices of men who guarded the wine. The moon, resembling a warrior’s shield of gold, reflected itself in the mirror of the flat roofs and flung fleeting, ghostly shadows about the twelve great gates of the city. The light fell upon the city wall, the purification pool, gardens filled with bee hives, long alleys of sycamore trees, of palm and fig trees. It fell upon tethered camels becoming restless at approach of day. It saw its golden surface in deep cisterns. It shone upon graves in which the bones of ancestors rested under the curse or the blessing of the sons of Israel. Night swept across the world of space like a prodigious face across the mind of the dreaming prophet.

The king lay like one dead upon his bed. Motionless, four men sat opposite him, their misshapen knotty hands rested upon the carven lions’ heads that formed the arms of their chairs. Their faces were so still it was as if they were made of stone and only the trembling flames in the bronze receptacles swept over them the unreal motion of shadows.

The first wore the dress of a priest of Israel. His beard was parted and combed and reached to his waist. His name was Sadok. The second wore the insignia of the head of the army. His name was Banahash. The other two were courtiers, Semej and Rej. Their richly oiled hair smelled of sandal wood and hyacinth. They had torn the costly garments that covered their breasts. Grief dwelled in their hearts and lessened the quick pulsing of blood in their veins. Their attitude was expectant. It was evident that they were waiting for something important. Their eyes rested upon the bed where David lay wrapped in the lion’s skin. His face was like a mask. It was the face of the dead. The body of the king was beginning to grow cold.

“Nathan does not come,” remarked Sadok.

No one answered.

Banahash drew his brows together ominously. Semej and Rej sighed.

Again there was silence, heavy and prophetic.

“Does Bethsheba know what Nathan said?” inquired Semej in a whisper.

“Yes, she knows,” replied Sadok.

“And has she agreed to it?” asked Rej.

“She had to agree. Does not God speak through the mouth of Nathan? It is her fault that she does not perform the last service for David the King.”

“She is old. She is burdened with years and illness,” objected Semej.

“Hush! The King moves,” whispered Banahash.

“No—it was just a rustling noise in the outer hall. Slaves are bringing the warming pans, and the coals.”

Seven negroes in short, red tunics entered. They bore bronze pans filled with glowing coals, which shone like the sweet star, Sahil, when it first pierces the mist of evening and looks down upon a sleeping world. They placed two pans at the foot of the king, two at the head, and one on either side. They sprinkled myrrh and powdered incense upon the coals, and disappeared as softly as phantoms. The seven glowing pans lighted the dim room and sent up a blueish smoke that filled the air with fragrance. The pale face of the king looked paler. The four men who sat and watched him sank lower their heads upon their breasts.

To the warmth of the summer night was added the heat of the steaming pans. Beads of sweat stood out upon the brows of the watching men, and dotted like pearls their long, black beards.

The door opened. A man of giant body stood upon the threshold. His hair and beard were unkempt. They knew neither oil nor comb. His caftan was girdled with a rope. His knotty, muscular feet were covered with dust. His naked breast was weather stained and looked like the trunk of a gnarled fig tree. White, bushy brows shaded his eyes which glowed like the coals in the warming pans.

“Nathan!” cried the watchmen by the bed. They arose and greeted him with gestures of submission. The expressions upon their faces changed. The face of Sadok showed curiosity held in check by fear; the face of Banahash, the calm of expectation, and satisfied desire; the faces of Semej and Rej, mistrust coupled with fear of the prophet.

Nathan looked about the room, and came nearer.

“How is the Anointed of the Lord?” he asked quickly.

“As he was when you left so is he now. Did you bring the Sunnamite maiden?”

“She is here; her father, too,” replied Nathan, beckoning toward the anteroom.

A man entered. His head was bowed. He had little twinkling eyes, a red beard, and dirty hands. It was Lamek of the tribe of Issaher. A slender maiden enveloped in a veil followed him. Even her face was covered, only the shadow of her eyes could be seen.

Lamek bowed low as to his knees. At this moment he was so small he resembled a dwarf. This impression was strengthened by the saffron yellow caftan and red hair. The maiden towered like a young palm beside him.

“Banahash,” directed Sadok,” take the maiden to the bath of the king that she may be fit for the bed of the king.”

Banahash opened a little door that shone like gold, which was entrance to the place of the bath. The room was walled with jasper. In the center was the bath, hewn round from a single block of black marble. From the center of the ceiling two sea serpents, in which huge rubies shone for eyes, spouted rose water.

Banahash took the hand of the maiden and led her to the door, where he gave her over to the care of four slave women. Two held jars of precious ointment, two mirrors of ebony, and coverings made of purple wool.

Sadok returned to Lamek who had not yet lifted his head. But his sharp, sly eyes kept circling the room, so that not the slightest motion of the faces of those present escaped him. Nathan, the prophet, stood by the bed of David the King. He held his hands extended as one who implores a blessing. His lips trembled with prophetic words.

“Is this your daughter, Lamek?” asked Sadok.

“Yes; but she is handsomer than I—or her dead mother.”

“Are you willing to do what Nathan, the man of God, has told you?”

“If it is the will of God—and the people of Israel may be saved.”

“Did she agree?”

“She does not know. But my daughter is obedient. My will is hers.”

“Is there one who loves her?”

“Yes—and no! My daughter is beautiful. And yet she really has no lover, because he does not know how beautiful she is. My eyes watch her as if she were a nugget of gold, or a drop of water in the desert.”

“Who is her lover?”

“A youth—an insignificant youth. He owns nor field nor vineyard. He owns no camels, nor is he the chief of a caravan. He owns nothing—nothing—It is my wish to obtain money enough to buy a vineyard near Sunnam—to leave to my children—that I may not die childless.”

“Does—this lover—know what is to happen?”

“Yes—He is calm. He only said to my daughter, ‘I will stand by the outer door of the palace until the end. I will await you there, to lead you back to the vineyard which your father will buy for us. If you remain as you are now, you will come without my calling you. If you do not come until the sun has set, I shall go away and I shall never look upon your face again’.”

Sadok did not answer. He went into a room in the rear of the sleeping room, where a massive chest stood. He beckoned to Lamek to come nearer. The Hebrew’s eyes greedily took in the contents of the chest. He saw bars upon bars of red gold, cups of beaten silver, rings, armlets, pearls the size of pigeon’s eggs. He saw gems as varied in color as the flowers of the fields in spring. Sadok buried his hands in the chest, drew out bar after glittering bar, and piled one upon another upon the floor. He piled up rings covered with gems. Lamek filled his arms, while his eyes shone fiercer than the metal.

Sadok wished to close the cover. But the Hebrew stood there and would not let him. He kept saying:

“For so little I will not sell my daughter!” Sadok bent down and gave Lamek another cup, this time of silver and starred with rubies, and two armlets. On each armlet was the head of Anubis carved of a single onyx. Lamek was satisfied now and drew back

The door of the bath opened and two slave women came in leading Abisag. She was robed in white, transparent muslin. About wrists and ankles were jewels. Gold dust sparkled upon her long, black hair, like stars in a dark night.

Sadok signalled the slaves to leave. The Sunnamite maiden stood alone and trembling in the midst of the grey, old men. Her eyes were fastened upon the marble floor. Her arms were folded upon her breast, which rose and fell with the agitation that swayed her.

Sadok drew his brows together sharply. Banahash understood the sign, approached the bed of the king and drew back the lions’ skins that covered it. Sadok lifted the muslin robe from the shoulders of the maiden.

Her hair, in which the gold dust sparkled, covered her like a cloak. Her cheeks were the color of the pomegranite. Nathan took her by the hand and led her to the bed of the king, while Banahash, the son of Johad, lifted up the lions’ skins.

The maiden embraced the cold body of the king as a daughter would embrace a dying father. Sadok spread upon them a woolen coverlet and motioned to the others. They left the room. Nathan, alone, remained, kneeling by the bed of David, the King, uplifting his hands in prayer.

The old men did not know that when they led Abisag to the bed of the king, a young man wearing a white robe appeared in the doorway. He went away again as quickly as he came. But he had seen the beauty of the Sunnamite maiden. This young man was Solomon.

From that moment peace vanished from the heart of Solomon. He was even indifferent that Adonias, the son of Hagith, whom friends had chosen king, was reveling day and night in the streets of Jerusalem, with his followers. He did not know that his mother, Bethsheba, stood white and trembling, her heart filled with bitterness and envy, behind a door of King David’s chamber, to watch the influence of Abisag upon the life of the King. He paid no heed to the opinions of the unstable courtiers and royal sycophants, nor to what the cunning Sadok and secretive Nathan had in mind. Weary in body and dispirited, he betook himself to his pleasure palace in Baalhamon. Here he shut himself in, and throughout the night wandered along its garden ways, where century old sycamores looked down upon him, listening the while to the cicadas of the nights of summer, sing and sing.

Once when he was about to lie down upon his couch to rest, a slave announced the unexpected arrival of Banahash.

Solomon did not care to see him.

The son of Johad did not await permission, he rushed into the room declaring breathlessly:

“Good news! The king lives. The king spoke.”

Solomon arose from his couch as if he expected some more definite communication.

“You must go back with me to the palace. It is a question of the anointing of a king.”

Solomon fell back weakly against the heaped up rugs upon his bed.

“I go not there again.”

“But it is the will of the king, and Bethsheba, your mother. Nathan awaits us by the river. In his hand is the holy oil for anointing. Adonias fled to the mountains.”

“I go not,” repeated Solomon.

“The nation awaits you. The judges are on your side. The warriors are calling your name through the streets of Jerusalem. And all this you owe to the Sunnamite maiden.”

“Abisag,” repeated Solomon slowly. “Am I pledged to give thanks to Abisag?”

“For everything,” answered Banahash. “She awoke the king. Otherwise he would never again have spoken.”

“Very well. On—on! I go,” said Solomon.

Seldom has a king at his anointing shown such indifference as Solomon. They did with him as they wished. They led him hither and thither. After being proclaimed king, he would gladly have gone back to Baalhamon. But David again lay as one dead, wordless, motionless, between the pans of glowing coals, wrapped in the yellow lion’s skin. Nathan, the prophet, thought the end was near. Abisag still visited the king, but her efforts were useless.

When Solomon entered the room of his father, David, the King, it was evening. Banahash, alone, was with him. Solomon sat down beside him and seemed like one in a dream. He wished to see Abisag when she came to the king. Hours passed. Banahash bent over the king and arranged the coverings. A shudder seized him. David’s heart did not beat. He thought he must be mistaken. He took a mirror of bronze and held it to the mouth of the king. The shimmering surface remained smooth and bright David was dead!

Banahash tore his garments, ran to Solomon, fell down in front of him, and touched his forehead to the floor.

“What is it, Banahash?” questioned Solomon, still in his dream.

“You are king! David is no more. I hasten to announce to the priests.”

“Wait!” commanded Solomon. “I forbid you to take a step.”

Then his voice changed and became gentle and pleading.

“Do you love me, Banahash?”

“I would give my life to you,” replied the courtier.

“It is your duty to watch by the King’s bed until morning. Very easily you can delay the announcement of the death of the King.”

Solomon bent and whispered in the ear of Banahash.

“Will you do it, Banahash?”

“I will, my King, if you will tell me what it was your father demanded against Joab, and Semej, whom they call the magician.”

“I will tell you—later.”

“No: now I must know it!” insisted Banahash.

“Later I will tell you. I swear it by the body of David, the King!”

“I go—to announce to Bethsheba, and the priests”

“Listen, then, and hear!”

Again he bent to the ear of the still kneeling Banahash and whispered the last will of David, the King.

“You know what Joab did to me. You will proceed against him as is just. Semej, too, you hold in your power, who cursed me with a grievous curse. In my wrath I swore against him: I will not slay you with the sword! But you—pardon him not. You can make him descend early into the grave.”

“I will warn my companions,” Banahash thought quickly.

“I will do whatever seems good to me,” thought Solomon.

Just as upon the evenings before, the Sunnamite, Abisag, ascended the couch of David, the King. She did not notice that the light was dimmed in the hanging receptacles of bronze, and that the great room grew dark and darker. She did not notice that the pans of coals had been carried away, nor that a great mass of lion’s skins and purple coverings had been heaped upon the couch of David. She lay down and fell asleep.

At first her dream was monotonous like the desert. But this desert was not one of heat. Cold winds blew over it. The desert stretched to the horizon; it was dark and deep, like a great room at night. No bird swept across it. Abisag dreamed that she stood alone upon this monotonous grey-yellow expanse, lost in a sea of twilight, and that invisible hands placed weights upon her feet. Across the desert blew cold winds such as are known in the East, and Abisag thought that the stones were such as mark the way of tombs. She was afraid. She wished to cry for help. Then the waste trembled, and the twilight began to lighten. Strips of azure streaked the sky. Grass sprang up upon the sand. Cranes flew overhead. Abisag had closed her eyes, but her eyelids were made of mother of pearl and she saw through them. Where the desert horizon joined the sky something roared and swayed. It was a forest of cedar trees a century old. The sunlight lay upon their fabulously lovely summits, and the wind wafted their fragrance abroad. As by magic the forest drew nearer and nearer. She heard fountains leap beneath it. Narcissus blossoms rose to greet her, and their circle of leaves was like human eyes. Flowering vines embraced her body. In the crown of the great cedar above her head, a bird of gold nested, and when it spread its wings scarlet blossoms fell about her. And the song of the bird was a song of power and mystery. “Set me like a seal upon thine heart. Strong as death is love, and desire is implacable as the grave—.”

Day touched her eyelids. She awoke. Beside her lay not the dead, grey King, but a man of youth and beauty, robed in white. He slept. Terrified, Abisag leaped from the couch, and stole away from the room. Outside, upon the streets of Jerusalem, where a great crowd swayed, and waving palm leaves were carried on high, voices called:

“Long live Solomon, King of Israel!”

Banahash and Nathan had announced the death of David, the King, because the sun had risen and day had come.

The Sunnamite maiden did not leave the royal palace. Some days later when she stepped from her bath, her slave women told her that Adonias, the son of Hagith, had been slain by Banahash at command of Solomon, and that his dead body lay before the palace door.

Abisag went down the palace steps and out upon the terrace. She saw the dead body. She wept. She fell upon it and covered it with kisses. While Abisag wept beside the body of Adonias, Solomon, amid the clang of trumpets, music of zithers and bells, was welcoming the Queen of Sheba. She came with a great retinue of camels, elephants, negroes and jesters, to learn of the wisdom and splendor of Solomon.

That same day were Joab, and Semej the magician, put to death, just as Solomon had promised David, the King.

 This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.


This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1961, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 62 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse