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The hall of the banquets was made ready for the feast in the palace of Babylon. That night Belshazzar the king would drink wine with a thousand of his lords, and be merry before them; and everything was made ready.
From end to end of the mighty nave, the tables of wood, overlaid with gold and silver, stood spread with those things which the heart of man can desire; with cups of gold and of glass and of jade; with great dishes heaped high with rare fruits and rarer flowers; and over all, the last purple rays of the great southern sun came floating through the open colonnades of the porch, glancing on the polished marbles, tingeing with a softer hue the smooth red plaster of the walls, and lingering lovingly on the golden features and the red-gold draperies of the vast statue that sat on high and overlooked the scene.
On his head the head-dress of thrice royal supremacy, in his right hand and his left the sceptre of power and the winged wheel of immortality and life, beneath his feet the bowed necks of prostrate captives;--so sat the kingly presence of great Nebuchadnezzar, as waiting to see what should come to pass upon his son; and the perfume of the flowers and the fruits and the rich wine came up to his mighty nostrils, and he seemed to smile there in the evening sunlight, half in satisfaction, half in scorn.
On each side of the great building, in the aisles and wings, among the polished pillars of marble thronged the serving-men, bearing ever fresh spices and flowers and fruits, wherewith to deck the feast, whispering together in a dozen Indian, Persian and Egyptian dialects, or in the rich speech of those nobler captives whose pale faces and eagle eyes stood forth everywhere in strong contrast with the coarser features and duskier skins of their fellows in servitude,--the race not born to dominate, but born to endure even to the end. These all mingled together in the strange and broken reflections of the evening light, and here and there the purple dye of the sun tinged the white tunic of some poor slave to as fair a colour as a king's son might wear.
On this side and on that of the tables that were spread for the feast, stood great candlesticks, as tall as the height of two men, tapering from the thickness and heavy carving below to the fineness and delicate tracery above, and bearing upon them cups of bronze, each having its wick steeped in fine oil mixed with wax. Moreover, in the midst of the hall, where the seat of the king was put upon a raised floor, the pillars stood apart for a space, so that there was a chamber, as it were, from the wall on the right to the wall on the left, roofed with great carved rafters; and the colour of the walls was red,--a deep and glorious red that seemed to make of the smooth plaster a sheet of precious marble. Beyond, beneath the pillars, the panels of the aisles were pictured and made many-coloured with the story of Nebuchadnezzar the king, his conquests and his feasts, his captives and his courtiers, in endless train upon the splendid wall. But where the king should sit in the midst of the hall there were neither pillars nor paintings; only the broad blaze of the royal colour, rich and even. Beside the table also stood a great lamp, taller and more cunningly wrought than the rest,--the foot of rare marble and chiselled bronze and the lamp above of pure gold from southern Ophir. But it was not yet kindled, for the sun was not set and the hour for the feast was not fully come.
At the upper end of the hall, before the gigantic statue of wrought gold, there was an open space, unencumbered by tables, where the smooth, polished marble floor came to view in all its rich design and colour. Two persons, entering the hall with slow steps, came to this place and stood together, looking up at the face of the golden king.
Between the two there was the gulf of a lifetime. The one was already beyond the common limit of age, while he who stood beside him was but a fair boy of fourteen summers.
The old man was erect still, and his snowy hair and beard grew like a lion's mane about his massive brow and masterful face. The deep lines of thought, graven deeper by age, followed the noble shaping of his brows in even course, and his dark eyes still shot fire, as piercing the bleared thickness of time to gaze boldly on the eternity beyond. His left hand gathered the folds of a snow-white robe around him, while in his right he grasped a straight staff of ebony and ivory, of fine workmanship, marvellously polished, whereon were wrought strange sayings in the Israelitish manner of writing. The old man stood up to his noble height, and looked from the burnished face of the king's image to the eyes of the boy beside him, in silence, as though urging his young companion to speak for him the thoughts that filled the hearts of both.
The youth spoke not, nor gave any sign, but stood with folded hands and gazed up to the great features of Nebuchadnezzar.
He was but fourteen years of age, tall and delicately made, full of the promise of a graceful and elastic power, fine of skin, and instinct with the nervous strength of a noble and untainted race. His face was fair and white, tinged with faint colour, and his heavy golden hair fell in long curls upon his shoulders, thick and soft with the silken fineness of early youth. His delicate features were straight and noble, northern rather than Oriental in their type--supremely calm and thoughtful, almost godlike in their young restfulness. The deep blue eyes were turned upward with a touch of sadness, but the broad forehead was as marble, and the straight marking of the brows bounded it and divided it from the face. He wore the straight white tunic, edged about with fine embroideries of gold and gathered at the waist with a rich belt, while his legs were covered with wide Persian trousers wrought in many colours of silk upon fine linen. He wore also a small cap of linen, stiffened to a point and worked with a cunning design in gold and silver. But the old man's head was covered only by the thick masses of his snowy hair, and his wide white mantle hid the details of his dress from view.
Again he glanced from the statue to his companion's eyes, and at last he spoke, in a deep smooth voice, in the Hebrew tongue.
"Nebuchadnezzar the king is gathered to his fathers, and his son also, and Nabonnedon Belshazzar reigns in his stead, yet have I endured to this day, in Babylon, these threescore and seven years, since Nebuchadnezzar the king destroyed our place upon the earth and led us away captive. Unto this day, Zoroaster, have I endured, and yet a little longer shall I stand and bear witness for Israel."
The old man's eyes flashed, and his strong aquiline features assumed an expression of intense vitality and life. Zoroaster turned to him and spoke softly, almost sadly:
"Say, O Daniel, prophet and priest of the Lord, why does the golden image seem to smile to-day? Are the times accomplished of thy vision which thou sawest in Shushan, in the palace, and is the dead king glad? I think his face was never so gentle before to look upon,--surely he rejoices at the feast, and the countenance of his image is gladdened."
"Nay, rather then should his face be sorrowful for the destruction of his seed and of his kingdom," answered the prophet somewhat scornfully. "Verily the end is at hand, and the stones of Babylon shall no longer cry out for the burden of the sins of Belshazzar, and the people call upon Bel to restore unto life the King Nebuchadnezzar; nay, or to send hither a Persian or a Mede to be a just ruler in the land."
"Hast thou read it in the stars, or have thine eyes seen these things in the visions of the night, my master?" The boy came nearer to the aged prophet and spoke in low earnest tones. But Daniel only bent his head, till his brow touched his ebony staff, and so he remained, deep in thought.
"For I also have dreamed,"--continued Zoroaster, after a short pause,--"and my dream took hold of me, and I am sorry and full of great weariness. Now this is the manner of my dreaming." He stopped and glanced down the great nave of the hall through the open porch at the other end. The full glory of the red sun, just touching the western plain, streamed upon his face and made the tables, the preparations and the crowd of busy serving-men look like black shadows between him and the light. But Daniel leaned upon his staff and spoke no word, nor moved from his position.
"I saw in my dream," said Zoroaster, "and there was darkness; and upon the winds of the night arose the sound of war, and the cry and the clash of battle, mighty men striving one with another for the mastery and the victory, which should be to the stronger. And I saw again, and behold it was morning, and the people were led away captive, by tens, and by hundreds, and by thousands, and the maidens also and young women into a far country. And I looked, and the face of one of the maidens was as the face of the fairest among the daughters of thy people. Then my heart yearned for her, and I would have followed after into the captivity; but darkness came upon me, and I saw her no more. Therefore am I troubled and go heavily all the day."
He ceased and the cadence of the boy's voice trembled and was sad. The sun set out of sight beneath the plain, and from far off a great sound of music came in upon the evening breeze.
Daniel raised his snowy head and gazed keenly on his young companion, and there was disappointment in his look.
"Wouldst thou be a prophet?" he asked, "thou that dreamest of fair maidens and art disquieted for the love of a woman? Thinkest thou, boy, that a woman shall help thee when thou art grown to be a man, or that the word of the Lord dwelleth in vanity? Prophesy, and interpret thy vision, if so be that thou art able to interpret it. Come, let us depart, for the king is at hand, and the night shall be given over for a space to the rioters and the mirth-makers, with whom our portion is not. Verily I also have dreamed a dream. Let us depart."
The venerable prophet stood up to his height, and grasping his staff in his right hand, began to lead the way from the hall. Zoroaster laid hold of him by the arm, as though entreating him to remain.
"Speak, master," he cried earnestly, "and declare to me thy dream, and see whether it accords with mine, and whether there shall be darkness and rumour of war in the land."
But Daniel the prophet would not stay to speak, but went out of the hall, and Zoroaster the Persian youth went with him, pondering deeply on the present and on the future, and on the nature of the vision he had seen; and made fearful by the silence of his friend and teacher.
The darkness fell upon the twilight, and within the hall the lamps and candlesticks were kindled and gave out warm light and rare perfumes. All down the endless rows of tables, the preparations for the feast were ready; and from the gardens without, strains of music came up ever stronger and nearer, so that the winged sounds seemed to come into the vast building and hover above the tables and seats of honour, preparing the way for the guests. Nearer and nearer came the harps and the pipes and the trumpets and the heavy reed-toned bagpipes, and above all the strong rich chorus of the singers chanting high the evening hymn of praise to Bel, god of sunlight, honoured in his departing, as in his coming, with the music of the youngest and most tuneful voices in Shinar.
First came the priests of Bel, two and two, robed in their white tunics, loose white garments on their legs, the white mitre of the priestly order on their heads, and their great beards curled smooth and glossy as silk. In their midst, with stately dignity, walked their chief, his eyes upon the ground, his hands crossed upon his breast, his face like dark marble in the twilight. On either side, those who had officiated at the sacrifice, bore the implements of their service,--the knife, the axe, the cord, and the fire in its dish; and their hands were red with the blood of the victim lately slain. Grand, great men, mighty of body and broad of brow, were these priests of Bel,--strong with the meat and the wine of the offerings that were their daily portion, and confident in the faith of their ancient wisdom.
After the priests the musicians, one hundred chosen men of skill, making strange deep harmonies in a noble and measured rhythm, marching ten and ten abreast, in ten ranks; and as they came on, the light streaming from the porch of the palace caught their silver ornaments and the strange shapes of their instruments in broken reflections between the twilight and the glare of the lamps.
Behind these came the singers,--of young boys two hundred, of youths a hundred, and of bearded men also a hundred; the most famous of all that sang praises to Bel in the land of Assur. Ten and ten they marched, with ordered ranks and step in time to the massive beat of the long-drawn measure.
"Mighty to rule the day, great in his glory and the pride of his heat, Shooting great bolts of light into the dark earth, turning death into life, Making the seed to grow, strongly and fairly, high in furrow and field, Making the heart of man glad with his gladness, rideth over the dawn Bel, the prince, the king of kings.
"Hotly his flaming hair, streaming with brightness, and the locks of his beard Curl'd into clouds of heat, sweeping the heavens, spread all over the sky: Who shall abide his face, fearful and deadly, when he devours the land, Angry with man and beast, horribly raging, hungry for sacrifice? Bel, the prince, the king of kings.
"Striding his three great strides, out of the morning through the noon to the night, Cometh he down at last, ready for feasting, ready for sacrifice: Then doth he tread the wine, purple and golden, foaming deep in the west; Shinar is spread for him, spread as a table, Assur shall be his seat: Bel, the prince, the king of kings.
"Bring him the fresh-slain flesh, roast it with fire, with the savour of salt, Pour him the strength of wine, chalice and goblet, trodden for him alone: Raise him the song of songs, cry out in praises, cry out and supplicate That he may drink delight, tasting our off'ring, hearing our evening song: Bel, the prince, the king of kings.
"So, in the gentle night, when he is resting, peace descendeth on earth; High in the firmament, where his steps led him, gleam the tracks of his way: Where the day felt his touch, there the night also breaketh forth into stars, These are the flowers of heaven, garlands of blossoms, growing to weave his crown: Bel, the prince, the king of kings.
"Hail! thou king of the earth, hail! Belteshazzar, hail! and for ever live! Born of the gods on high, prince of the nations, ruling over the world: Thou art the son of Bel, full of his glory, king over death and life; Let all the people bow, tremble and worship, bow them down and adore The prince of Bel, the king of kings."
As the musicians played and the singers sang, they divided their ranks and came and stood on each side of the broad marble staircase; and the priests had done so before them, but the chief priest stood alone on the lowest step.
Then, between the files of those who stood, advanced the royal procession, like a river of gold and purple and precious stones flowing between banks of pure white. Ten and ten, a thousand lords of Babylon marched in stately throng, and in their midst rode Belshazzar the king, high upon his coal-black steed, crowned with the great tiara of white linen and gold and jewels, the golden sceptre of the kingdom in his right hand. And after the lords and the king came a long procession of litters borne by stalwart slaves, wherein reclined the fairest women of all Assyria, bidden to the great feast. Last of all, the spearmen of the guard in armour all chased with gold, their mantles embroidered with the royal cognisance, and their beards trimmed and curled in the close soldier fashion, brought up the rear; a goodly company of men of war.
As the rich voices of the singers intoned the grand plain chant of the last stanza in the hymn, the king was in the middle of the open space at the foot of the staircase; there he drew rein and sat motionless on his horse, awaiting the end. As the ripe corn bends in its furrows to the wind, so the royal host around turned to the monarch, and fell upon their faces as the music died away at the signal of the high priest. With one consent the lords, the priests, the singers and the spearmen bowed and prostrated themselves on the ground; the bearers of the litters set down their burden while they did homage; and each of those beautiful women bent far forward, kneeling in her litter, and hid her head beneath her veil.
Only the king sat erect and motionless upon his steed, in the midst of the adoring throng. The light from the palace played strangely on his face, making the sneering smile more scornful upon his pale lips, and shading his sunken eyes with a darker shadow.
While you might count a score there was silence, and the faint evening breeze wafted the sweet smell of the roses from the gardens to the king's nostrils, as though even the earth would bring incense of adoration to acknowledge his tremendous power.
Then the host rose again and fell back on either side while the king rode to the staircase and dismounted, leading the way to the banquet; and the high priest followed him and all the ranks of the lords and princes and the ladies of Babylon, in their beauty and magnificence, went up the marble steps and under the marble porch, spreading then like a river, about the endless tables, almost to the feet of the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar. And presently, from beneath the colonnades a sound of sweet music stole out again and filled the air; the serving-men hurried hither and thither, the black slaves plied their palm-leaf fans behind each guest, and the banquet was begun.
Surely, a most glorious feast, wherein the hearts of the courtiers waxed merry, and the dark eyes of the Assyrian women shot glances sweeter than the sweetmeats of Egypt and stronger than the wine of the south to move the spirit of man. Even the dark king, wasted and hollow-eyed with too much pleasure-seeking, smiled and laughed,--sourly enough at first, it is true, but in time growing careless and merry by reason of his deep draughts. His hand trembled less weakly as the wine gave him back his lost strength, and more than once his fingers toyed playfully with the raven locks and the heavy earrings of the magnificent princess at his elbow. Some word of hers roused a thought in his whirling brain.
"Is not this day the feast of victories?" he cried in sudden animation; and there was silence to catch the king's words. "Is not this the day wherein my sire brought home the wealth of the Israelites, kept holy with feasting for ever? Bring me the vessels of the unbelievers' temple, that I may drink and pour out wine this night to Bel, the god of gods!"
The keeper of the treasure had anticipated the king's desire and had caused everything to be made ready; for scarcely had Belshazzar spoken when a long train of serving-men entered the hall of the banquet and came and stood before the royal presence, their white garments and the rich vessels they bore aloft standing vividly out against the deep even red of the opposite wall.
"Let the vessels be distributed among us," cried the king,--"to every man a cup or a goblet till all are served."
And so it was done, and the royal cup-bearer came and filled the huge chalice that the king held, and the serving-men hastened to fill all the cups and the small basins; while the lords and princes laughed at the strange shapes, and eyed greedily enough the thickness and the good workmanship of the gold and silver. And so each man and each woman had a vessel from the temple of Jerusalem wherein to drink to the glory of Bel the god and of Belshazzar his prince. And when all was ready, the king took his chalice in his two hands and stood up, and all that company of courtiers stood up with him, while a mighty strain of music burst through the perfumed air, and the serving-men showered flowers and sprinkled sweet odours on the tables.
Without stood the Angel of Death, whetting his sword upon the stones of Babylon. But Belshazzar held the chalice and spoke with a loud voice to the princes and the lords and the fair women that stood about the tables in the great hall:
"I, Belshazzar the king, standing in the hall of my fathers, do pour and drink this wine to the mighty majesty of Bel the great god, who lives for ever and ever; before whom the gods of the north and of the west and of the east and of the south are as the sand of the desert in the blast; at whose sight the vain deities of Egypt crumbled into pieces, and the God of the Israelites trembled and was made little in the days of Nebuchadnezzar my sire. And I command you, lords and princes of Babylon, you and your wives and your fair women, that ye also do pour wine and drink it, doing this homage to Bel our god, and to me, Belshazzar the king."
And so saying, he turned about to one side and spilled a few drops of wine upon the marble floor, and set the cup to his lips, facing the great throng of his guests; and he drank. But from all the banquet went up a great shout.
"Hail! king, live for ever! Hail! prince of Bel, live for ever! Hail! king of kings, live for ever!" Long and loud was the cry, ringing and surging through the pillars and up to the great carved rafters till the very walls seemed to rock and tremble with the din of the king's praise.
Slowly Belshazzar drained the cup to the dregs, while with half-closed eyes he listened to the uproar, and perhaps sneered to himself behind the chalice, as was his wont. Then he set the vessel down and looked up. But as he looked he staggered and turned pale, and would have fallen; he grasped the ivory chair behind him and stood trembling in every joint, and his knees knocking together, while his eyes seemed starting from his head, and all his face was changed and distorted with dreadful fear.
Upon the red plaster of the wall, over against the candlestick which shed its strong rays upon the fearful sight, the fingers of a vast hand moved and traced letters. Only the fingers could be seen, colossal and of dazzling brightness, and as they slowly did their work, huge characters of fire blazed out upon the dark red surface, and their lambent angry flame dazzled those who beheld, and the terror of terrors fell upon all the great throng; for they stood before Him whose shadow is immortality and death.
In a silence that could be felt, the dread hand completed its message and vanished out of sight, but the strange fire burned bright in the horrid characters of the writing that remained upon the wall.
This was the inscription in Chaldean letters:
Then at last the king found speech and shrieked aloud wildly, and he commanded that they should bring in all the astrologers, the Chaldeans and the diviners, for he was in great terror and he dreaded some fearful and imminent catastrophe.
"Whoever shall read this writing," he cried, his voice changed and broken, "and declare to me the meaning of it, shall be clothed in purple, and shall have a chain of gold about his neck and shall rule as the third in the kingdom."
Amidst the mighty confusion of fear, the wise men were brought in before the king.
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