IT was Abner, captain of the army, who led the shepherd boy before the king. Down a maze of corridors they made their way toward the king's largest chamber, passing through sumptuous apartments on the way, all furnished in barbaric splendor. But David, exhausted, nearly naked, carried the leaking head of the giant, the blood spotting the palace marbles.
Saul received the shepherd boy for what he was now, the hero of the hour. He coaxed him to explain how one little stone, no bigger than an unripe fig, had brought down the terrible Goliath.
Standing among the courtiers, and watching while David stammered answers to the king's questions, was Jonathan, Saul's favorite son. The fair young prince was like someone under a spell as he listened to the giant-killer's modest narrative. Especially he noted David's natural felicity of phrases, the accent of true poetry. How was it he had not been afraid? And this was David's answer:
"The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear Him, and delivereth them."
Here was a rare one, this David. So Jonathan thought as he broke the regal etiquette and rushed forward to embrace David as if they were brothers.
Closer far than brothers they were soon to be. The luster of their friendship will last as long as men are capable of liking each other. All that great men have had to say about friendship, from Cicero to Emerson, falls a little short of this supreme historic example of the love of two men. This Jonathan, the king's favorite, loved David as his own soul.
At first Saul, too, was consumed with admiration. When Jonathan asked what reward he had in mind for the amazing young son of Jesse, the king decided to make the new hero a general, to set him over the men of war in Israel, boy though he still was. Genius, the king knew, was never to be measured by time, and as time went on this judgment, though it may have been swayed by emotion, proved excellent, for David bred fear in the Philistines whenever they heard his name, and with his troops he smote them repeatedly with crippling blows.
Could any young man stand, unspoiled, the praise and flattery being poured out on the new commander? David even feared for himself; he realized that flattery went to his head, and in those innocent days he wanted only the favor of the Lord. But hero-worship could not be downed. Once, when David was returning with King Saul from a victorious battle, the women of some of the cities came out to greet them with taborets and dances. But their smiles and waving hands were not for king Saul; they were all for the ruddy-faced, goodly formed David, and over and over they sang a refrain:
"Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands."
Who could blame if proud and sensitive Saul was irked? What did the moaning, swooning women desire: did they want the kingdom turned over to this glamorous boy? Already there were whispers of such treasonable notion; everybody knew that supremacy as a warrior generally carried with it the leadership of a nation.
Once again Saul began to brood, in an unspeakable chaos of thoughts. All night long he sulked over public ingratitude and fickleness; hour by hour his resentment grew. By morning he was in a villainous mood, and even before breakfast he commanded his general, who had once been his harpist, to come to the throne room and soothe his cankered mind. Obediently David appeared with his harp, as of old. But secretly Saul was determined to resist the spell of the music. So, although David strove hard to exorcise the evil spirit, the melancholy could not be dispelled from the king's mind. Frowning and muttering, Saul remained on his throne and glared at the harpist, as if daring him. Cantankerously from time to time he interrupted the musician, insisting that the harp was out of tune, or that David's fingers were plucking false chords—hoping to provoke the youth into an outburst of anger, so that he could justly punish him.
But David held his peace. Maddened at last, when he could not unsettle the serenity of his musician, kingly nerves on edge, Saul, like a manic-depressive, suddenly sprang to this feet and, seizing his javelin, hurled it at David, aiming to transfix him to the wall. Only by inches did the huge spear miss its murderous mark, and David ran from the throne room.
The boy general from Bethlehem told no one of the episode. He realized why he was in danger and, like a true poet, sought the way of escape by guidance from within. Meanwhile he acted toward Saul as if nothing violent had happened between them: an attitude that only increased the king's brooding madness. The fact that the spear had missed, bothered Saul, the marksman. Because David seemed to have a charmed life, protected by Heaven, he was now really someone to fear; better get rid of the fellow at once.
So David was sent away from court. He was ordered into active army service, captain over a thousand men. What Saul really hoped for was misfortune in war to stay the course of David's luck and success; a death wound in battle, for example. But no! After every armed clash the Bethlehemite emerged safely, and the people loved him more and more. So Saul had to take a craftier tack.
Presently, to everybody's surprise, the king offered to the popular hero his eldest daughter, Merab, in marriage. And again to everybody's surprise—and to none more than Saul's—David declined the honor.
"Who am I that I should be son-in-law to the king?" he asked.
But it was hard to oppose a willful master like Saul. He wanted a daughter of his to be David's bedfellow, so that she could bring reports to her father of all the plots he was sure David would be up to. The situation grew more and more embarrassing; having said no to Merab, David was next invited to taker her young sister Michal, who in desperation he finally agreed to marry, well realizing that his beauteous bride would be a spy at his pillow. But David also knew there would be no treason for her to report.
That being so, Saul again and again dispatched David on military adventures in which any less lucky man, or one less blessed, would certainly have perished. But always David returned victorious, and more and more the people acclaimed his name.
How could Saul get rid of such a menace? In his hate-clouded mind he turned to his son, Prince Jonathan.
Would Jonathan, his son, undertake to murder David, his dearest friend?
There was incogitable ignorance of soul in such a suggestion. Saul was incapable of knowing or understanding the character either of his son, Jonathan, or of his protégé, David. In his folly he put it to Jonathan—did he not see that David was ambitious to rule, to supplant the house of Saul? Aghast, Jonathan fled from his father, resolved only to warn David of his danger. It was a difficult duty for Jonathan, because he also loved his father greatly, but he did not hesitate. Next day he went back into the throne room and tried to persuade the king to drop his evil designs. David, he argued, had done nothing but good to the kingdom.
"Will you sin against innocent blood, my father?" Jonathan demanded.
This plea seemed to have an effect. Saul sent for David and frankly offered to revive their friendship. But who could believe it would last? One morning, in a new fit of melancholy, he asked David once more to play for him. And again he hurled the javelin, again in vain!
There seemed no safety anywhere except in flight. What kind of life was it for a man when every shadow at a corner might be a hired assassin? The desire for the violent death of David was like a lust in Saul's mind; he conferred in secret with some of the lowest of criminals, paying well and promising more, and at their hands David would have indeed perished but for his wife. Michal, that daughter of Saul, had come so to love her husband that she warned him in their bed, tied sheets together, and let him down through a back window, and then used a dummy shaped like her husband to lie beside her in the moonshine.
Meanwhile David hid himself at Ramah. Still in hopes that he could be reconciled with the king, and taken at last by a sense of unremitting peril, David met Jonathan in a field at midnight.
"What have I done? What is my iniquity?" he cried despairingly. "There is but a step between me and death."
"I will do whatever your soul desires of me," declared Jonathan.
"Tomorrow is the new moon, and I should not fail to sit with the king at meat," said David. "But I would rather go and hide myself in a certain field I know for the three days of feasting, and appear to have gone to Bethlehem for the yearly celebration."
Jonathan disliked deception and was troubled.
"Deal kindly with your servant, for have we not sworn one to another?" entreated David. "Slay me yourself if I have sinned, but do not force me to be with the king."
Jonathan said it was farthest from his wish to stir up more trouble. With heaven as witness, he and David made a solemn pledge of eternal friendship between their houses. As if one vow were not enough, the two young men swore it a second time. Their love that day was utterly unselfish and true, a deep union of the spirit.
Jonathan went off to see what he could do.
The vacant chair of David at the feast of the new moon was instantly noted by Saul. But the king bided his time. On the first day he said nothing; on the second he scowled and demanded:
"Wherefore does not the son of Jesse come to meat, neither yesterday nor today?"
Jonathan's smile was all placating as he explained: "Earnestly he asked leave of me to go to Bethlehem, where his family holds sacrifice."
Asked leave! Of whom? You! So Jonathan had taken it on himself to give permission! Saul heaped fierce, insulting words upon his son; a shameless tirade in which the king lost every shred of dignity and self-control:
"For as long as the son of Jesse lives upon the ground, you shall not be established, nor your kingdom. Wherefore now send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die."
Ashen of face, but steadfast for his friend, Jonathan defied his father:
"Why shall he be slain? What has he done to deserve it?"
Maddened at this stammering son who went against him, Saul rose and lifted his arm deliberately. Once more he hurled his javelin, flying at his own flesh and blood. But Saul's marksmanship had not improved. He stood there cursing, calling down maledic-tions on Jonathan, as the young man ran from the dining hall. Saul did not dare to detain him, nor dare to order hands laid on him; for everyone present, all the court, the bearded elders and generals at the feast, knew that Jonathan had not deserved such treatment.
By night and by stealth Jonathan hastened to David. Under the stars they clung together, wondering what next. Certainly David must get as far away as possible. Henceforth he would be a hunted man with all the royal hounds on his heels. Should he flee to mountains or desert?
And Jonathan said to David:
"Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us, in the name of the Lord, saying, The Lord be between you and me, and between my seed and your seed forever."
So parted the closest friends; in all his troubles the heart of David was thankful to God for Jonathan. Cut off from all that he held dear and desirable, the poet returned to his music, as he made his way alone on dark roads. In one new psalm he voiced his indomitable faith:
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day, nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness, nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.…
Because thou hast made the Lord thy habitation, there shall no evil befall thee, nor affliction come nigh thy dwelling.
For he will give His angels charge concerning thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
More than any other man who had lived since Adam, the runaway David felt a sense of the divine fatherhood, blessing him, comforting and protecting him. The thought of that invisible and Almighty Father, always near, always dependable, always interested in him and hoping for his love, came to him like a vision. His soul, one of the first of mortals to recognize the beauty and universal happiness of that conception, was filled up with song and the music of it is deathless:
Thy knowest my downsitting and mine uprising. Thou understandest my thought afar off.
Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.
There is not a word in my tongue, but Thou knowest it. Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid Thine hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.
Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from Thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in the grave, behold, Thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me, even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from Thee, but the night shineth as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to Thee.…
I will praise Thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvelous are Thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well.…
Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts, … and lead me in the way everlasting.
From such a friendly Father help would always come, even against the might of Saul and his cohorts.
I will love thee, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower. … He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from them which hate me: for they were too strong for me … The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness. … Yea, Thou liftest me above those that rise up against me: Thou hast delivered me from the violent man.
But from that "violent man" David had yet much to suffer. (to be continued).