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Damon, with a dagger in his robe,
Crept up to Dionysius, the tyrant;
Whose attendants fell in slumber.
“What do you seek with that dagger? Speak!”
The angry voice challenged him.
“To free the city from the tyrant!”
“That you will answer upon the cross.”
“I am,” he rejoined, “prepared to die
And ask not for my life,
But grant me mercy,
I beseech you for three days’ time,
Until my sister is wed to her husband,
I leave you my friend as hostage,
Should I flee, you may strangle him.”
Then the king smiled with an angry mien
And after brief deliberation spoke:
“I’ll grant you three days.
But know this! If they pass by, this deadline,
Without your return to me,
Then he will be impaled in your stead,
Though the penalty be intended for you.”
So he went to his friend: “The king ordains,
That I atone with my life upon the cross
For my offending attempt,
Though he grants me three days’ time,
That I may see my sister married,
Provided that you stand as my guarantor
Until I come to dissolve the bond.”
And silently the true friend embraced him
And he delivered himself up to the tyrant,
As his friend departed.
And before the third dawn rose,
He had quickly united his sister with her betrothed,
And rushed home with a burdened soul,
In order not to miss the deadline.
Then great rains ceaselessly poured,
Torrents coursed down from the mountains,
The creeks and streams swelled
And so he came with his walking stick to the shore
And found the bridge swept away by
The thundering, rampaging waters crushing
The collapsing arches of the vault.
Irreconcilable, he wandered at the water’s edge
As far as he searched and peered
His voice, shouting, sending
Found no voice echoing from the safer shore
Which would bring him to the hoped-for land,
No boatsman would launch his ferry
And the wild stream became like a sea.
He sank to the shore and wept and cried,
Raising his hands to Zeus:
“Hold back the rage of these waters!
The hours rush by, the sun stands
Now at midday, and when it sets
If I cannot reach the city,
Then my friend will perish in my stead!”
Still the water’s fury rises from anew,
One wave rises after the next,
One hour passes after the next,
Anxiety at last presses him to a courageous act,
And he flings himself into the surging flood
Seizing the current with his powerful arms,
And a God takes pity upon him.
He reaches the other shore and hastens forth,
Thanking the God his savior,
When out of the darkened lair of the forest
Emerged a horde of robbers,
Blocking his way, and sensing murder
Preventing him in his haste
With a cudgel menacingly swung.
“What do you want?” he cried, paled by fear,
“I have nothing to give but my life,
And that I owe the king!”
And with that he snatched the club from the closest of the band,
“For the sake of my friend, have mercy!”
And with three powerful blows he struck,
Dealing death, as the others fled.
And the sun radiates its glowing fire,
He collapses sinking his knee
Drained by relentless exertion
“You have saved me mercifully from the hand of robbers,
From the flood you have rescued me to the holy land,
To what end?—that here I should perish miserably
Leaving the friend who loves me to die!”
But listen! Then it bubbled forth, silver-clear,
Close by a trickling sound,
And quietly he paused to listen,
And from the rocks, evanescent quickly
Sprang forth murmuring a living source,
And joyously it stooped down
Bringing refreshment to the burning limbs.
And the sun cut through the green branches
Painting gigantic shadows upon the
Dazzling mats of the trees,
And two travelers he espied upon the road,
Scurrying fleet of foot past him,
And then he heard them utter the words:
“Now he will be crucified!”
Despair put wings upon his feet,
The woes tormented him -
There, reflected in the evening sun,
From far, the battlements of Syracuse.
And Philostratus approached him,
The trustworth guardian of the house,
He understands in horror the ruler.
“Turn back! You can’t save your friend.
Save your own life!
He will suffer death, no matter.
From hour to hour he awaits
Your return with an aspirant soul
Your bold faith will not spare
Him the tyrant’s contempt.”
“It is too late, no savior will now
Appear welcome to him,
Yet death may unite me with my friend.
The tyrant will not be able to boast that
One friend failed in his duty to the other,
He will have a double sacrifice
And will witness love and fidelity.”
As the sun sets, he stands at the gate
And sees the cross already raised,
Surrounded by a gawking crowd,
His friend already being hoisted by a cord,
And powerfully he breaks through the thick crowd:
“Executioner, strangle me!” he shouts,
“I am here, the one for whom he stands hostage!”
And shock seized the assembled crowd,
As the two held each other in their arms,
Crying for pain and joy.
No eye was without tears,
And the wondrous tale is relayed to the king,
Who, feeling a human stirring,
Quickly had them brought before the throne.
He gazed upon them long in amazement,
And then spoke: “You have succeeded,
You have turned my heart,
In truth, fidelity is no idle delusion,
So accept me also as your friend,
I would be – grant me this request –
The third in your band!”
–Friedrich Schiller, Die Bürgschaft (1798) in: Sämtliche Werke, vol. 1, pp. 352-56 (C. Hanser ed. 1980)(S.H. transl.)
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
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