Somewhere between Shunem and Tirzah, as Solomon’s caravan slowly returns to Jerusalem. The time is mid-day, and the entourage has set down beneath the shade of the trees. The court-ladies have been instructed to ‘prepare’ the shepherd girl, to anoint her, and array her with costume and jewellery, to be ready ‘for the King’s pleasure.’ Reluctantly she agrees. The process itself is not irksome, but she would prefer to be ‘prepared’ for another man. Of course, he is following, but she must not reveal too much, even to the court-ladies, lest it bring harm to the one she loves. She is none too sure of herself, neither is she too sure of the reactions of those around her, and all the time she is aware of the royal prerogative that demands implicit obedience from all the King’s subjects. The Shunamite girl soliloquises as the Court Ladies attend to her. She appears to be in a world of her own.
O that you would kiss me tenderly!
For your endearments are better than wine!
Your anointing oil is fragrant,
Your name is like perfume,
Set free from its casket;
No wonder the maidens love you!
Take me with you!
Let us hurry away from here!
She pauses, realising that she is day-dreaming. Sadly she recollects
The King has brought me
into his inner-apartments.
COURT LADIES: thinking the girl has spoken of Solomon, they take up her strain, and extol their King –
We rejoice and delight in you,
We shall extol your endearments
more than the choicest wine!
How greatly indeed has the
Upright One loved you!
The girl becomes aware of the way they are eyeing her.
I am well bronzed but comely
0 daughters of Jerusalem!
I am dark like the tents of Kedar
(Kedar was the second son of Ishmael. Since early times Arab tents had been traditionally dark in colour.)
But as comely as Solomon’s curtains!
Despise me not for my skin,
Darkened by the light of the sun!
Again she changes the subject, and relates the tale of her restriction in the vineyard, and the reason why.
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
They sent me to tend their vines;
I have my own vineyard but now it has become neglected.
She turns and looks out between the curtains and across the fields. Her eyes are skinned for a sight of her beloved, but he is nowhere to be seen. Has he returned to his flock? She is anxious. Meanwhile the ladies in attendance listen and watch carefully to all she says and does. After all, it is their only source of interest in life, what may be called the ‘court tittle-tattle.’
Tell me 0 lover of mine
Where are you pasturing your flock?
Where will you be resting today
At this season of noontide heat?
Do not let me wander aimlessly
From the flocks of your companions.
COURT LADIES: somewhat sarcastically, as though to humour this strange rural creature,
If you have no idea,
‘0 fairest of women’
(For they had heard their King refer to her thus)
Follow the tracks of the sheep.
Feed your lambs by the shepherds’ tents!
At that moment the King himself appears. Already he sees a transformation, and is completely captivated by her beauty.
I shall compare you, my love, my fair one,
To the mare I presented to Pharaoh
Which now graces his personal chariot!
How lovely are your cheeks
Between those plaited tresses!
How comely is your neck
With those golden pendants
Studded with gem-stones!
COURT LADIES: fussing around as court ladies should
We shall make you rows of golden beads
Entwined with silver!
The King reclined on a magnificent couch at one end of the royal caravan, and continued his conversation. But the girl became nervous and fearful, and this distressed the King. He is a kindly disposed man, and given to tenderness with women. His wise and sympathetic ways endear him to many. He complies with her request to leave the caravan for a short while to walk in the fields. And so, whilst everyone else reclines in the shade, she walks away to the far end of the grove of trees.
After some minutes alone, and out of earshot of the royal entourage, she becomes aware of a form hiding behind one of the trees. He is here! He has not left her! Without attracting anyone’s attention she goes over to where he stands and they renew their love to each other. The shepherd boy sees his beloved ‘prepared’ for him rather than Solomon, and is captivated by her beauty. They sit and talk together for a while, stolen moments, sweet but ephemeral, and they make the most of them. We now break into their conversation –
– – and while the King reclined on his couch,
My spikenard gave forth its fragrance;
Indeed, your presence 0 beloved mine
Was as close as the little bag of myrrh
That now shall lodge throughout the night
Betwixt my breasts,
Like a cluster of cypress flowers
From the vineyards of En-gedi.
(A place on the western shore of the Dead Sea.)
How beautiful you are my love!
How beautiful indeed!
Your eyes are the eyes of doves.
How truly lovely you are, my dearest, How lovely indeed!
Our resting place has a ceiling of leafy branches
Our ‘bower’ is made of cedar arches
And pinewood beams!
But as for me,
I am no more than a little rose from Sharon,
A wild meadow-saffron,
The merest lily of the valley.
As a lily amongst the brambles
Is my fair one amongst women.
They embrace and part company. He promises to follow her wherever she goes. Whenever she is allowed some free time, he will always be around, never far away. She returns to the caravan strengthened, feeling that circumstances will turn out well for them both. She hopes this will be sooner rather than later.
She has returned to the royal caravans, and in particular to the one occupied by the court ladies. They are alone again. They see her enter with a spring in her tread, more confident than when she left, and straightway she begins to extol the virtues of her beloved shepherd friend.
Like an apple tree among the trees of the wood
Is my beloved among men!
To sit in his shade is my delight,
And his fruit is sweet to my taste.
He leads me to the shade of the vine arbour
And overshadows me with love;
He refreshes me with raisins;
He revives me with apples,
For I am love-sick indeed!
While the court ladies listen to the poetry and bat their wits at it’s meaning, the shepherd girl tells them of a meeting that took place earlier in the spring.
Hark! My beloved!
He is coming!
Bounding over the mountains!
Leaping over the hills!
My beloved is like a gazelle,
Like a young hart;
Behold, there he stands!
See, behind the vineyard wall!
Gazing through the windows,
Peeping in at the lattice;
He calls to me -“Rise up my darling, my fairest,
Come away with me,
For lo, the winter is past,
The rains are over and gone,
The flowers are showing in the fields,
And the time for the singing of the birds has come;
The cooing of the turtle-dove
Will again be heard in our land;
It is the season of the first ripe figs
As they fall from the outer branches;
And lo, the vines are in blossom,
Giving forth their fragrance!
Arise, my darling, my fair one
And come away.”
She stops to reflect. It had been on this very occasion when her brothers overheard some of their conversation, and so their attachment became known. She continues her soliloquy almost in a whisper, remembering the words of her beloved –
Let us hide in the clefts of the rocks,
In the crannies on the high ledges,
Let me see your face,
Let me hear you speak
For your voice is lovely
And your face is wondrous fair.
The brothers put in their appearance, and the shepherd boy is politely asked to leave. Again the shepherd girl’s face changes as she remembers her brothers’ words –
“Go and catch the little foxes
That are spoiling our vines.
They always return when the blossoms appear again.”
The court ladies had listened to all this as though it were a play, and so it was! But it was also the truth. They are now quite affected by the display of emotion and the pain felt at the time of separation. But now the sound of men is heard, and there is movement all around. The heat of the noonday sun has passed, and the caravan is once again on the move. As soon as they are under way, the shepherd girl addresses the court ladies directly –
My beloved is mine and I am his,
His delight was to walk among the lilies,
Early in the morning, when the day was young,
Before the shadows had fled away.
I would cry out in my heart,
‘Return my beloved, show yourself once again,
Be my gazelle, my young hart,
On the mountains of separation.’