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The time passed, and it was eleven days since Zoroaster had set out. The king and Nehushta had continued to meet in the garden as before, and neither had ever referred to the day when the torrent of his heart had been suddenly let loose. The hours sped quietly and swiftly, without any event of importance. Only the strange bond, half friendship and half love, had grown stronger than before; and Nehushta wondered how it was that she could love two men so well, and yet so differently. Indeed they were very different men. She loved Zoroaster, and yet it sometimes seemed as though he would more properly have filled the place of a friend than of a lover. Darius she had accepted as her friend, but there were moments when she almost forgot that he was not something more. She tried to think of her meeting with Zoroaster, whether it would be like former meetings,--whether her heart would beat more strongly, or not beat at all when her lips touched his as of old. Her judgment was utterly disturbed and her heart no longer knew itself. She gave herself over to the pleasure of the king's society in the abandonment of the moment, half foreseeing that some great change was at hand, over which she could exercise no control.
The sun was just risen, but the bridge over the quickly flowing Choaspes was still in the shadow cast over the plain by the fortress and the palace, when two horsemen appeared upon the road from Nineveh, riding at full gallop, and, emerging from the blue mist that still lay over the meadows, crossed the bridge and continued at full speed towards the ascent to the palace.
The one rider was a dark, ill-favoured man, whose pale flaccid cheeks and drooping form betrayed the utmost fatigue. A bolster was bound across the withers of his horse and another on the croup, so that he sat as in a sort of chair, but he seemed hardly able to support himself even with this artificial assistance, and his body swayed from side to side as his horse bounded over the sharp curve at the foot of the hill. His mantle was white with dust, and the tiara upon his head was reduced to a shapeless and dusty piece of crumpled linen, while his uncurled hair and tangled beard hung forward together in disorderly and dust-clotted ringlets.
His companion was Zoroaster, fair and erect upon his horse, as though he had not ridden three hundred farsangs in eleven days. There was dust indeed upon his mantle and garments, as upon those of the man he conducted, but his long fair hair and beard blew back from his face as he held his head erect to the breeze he made in riding, and the light steel cap was bright and burnished on his forehead. A slight flush reddened his pale cheeks as he looked upward to the palace, and thought that his ride was over and his errand accomplished. He was weary, almost to death; but his frame was elastic and erect still.
As they rode up the steep, the guards at the outer gate, who had already watched them for twenty minutes as they came up the road, mere moving specks under the white mist, shouted to those within that Zoroaster was returning, and the officer of the gate went at once to announce his coming to the king. Darius himself received the message, and followed the officer down the steps to the tower of the gateway, reaching the open space within, just as the two riders galloped under the square entrance and drew rein upon the pavement of the little court. The spearmen sprang to their feet and filed into rank as the cry came down the steps that the king was approaching, and Zoroaster leaped lightly from his horse, and bid Phraortes do likewise; but the wretched Median could scarce move hand or foot without help, and would have fallen headlong, had not two stout spearmen lifted him to the ground, and held him upon his legs.
Darius marched quickly up to the pair and stood still, while Zoroaster made his brief salutation. Phraortes, who between deadly fatigue and deadly fear of his life, had no strength left in him, fell forward upon his knees as the two soldiers relaxed their hold upon his arms.
"Hail, king of kings! Live for ever!" said Zoroaster. "I have fulfilled thy bidding. He is alive."
Darius laughed grimly as he eyed the prostrate figure of the Median.
"Thou art a faithful servant, Zoroaster," he answered, "and thou ridest as the furies that pursue the souls of the wicked--as the devils of the mountains after a liar. He would not have lasted much farther, this bundle of sweating dust. Get up, fellow!" he said, touching Phraortes's head with his toe. "Thou liest grovelling there like a swine in a ditch."
The soldiers raised the exhausted man to his feet. The king turned to Zoroaster.
"Tell me, thou rider of whirlwinds," he said, laughing, "will a man more readily tell the truth, or speak lies, when he is tired?"
"A man who is tired will do whichever will procure him rest," returned Zoroaster, with a smile.
"Then I will tell this fellow that the sooner he speaks the truth the sooner he may sleep," said the king. Going near to Zoroaster, he added in an undertone: "Before thou thyself restest, go and tell the queen privately that she send away her slaves, and await me and him thou hast brought in a few minutes. This fellow must have a little refreshment, or he will die upon the steps."
Zoroaster turned and went up the broad stairs, and threaded the courts and passages, and mounted to the terrace where he had first met Atossa before the king's apartments. There was no one there, and he was about to enter under the great curtain, when the queen herself came out and met him face to face. Though it was yet very early, she was attired with more than usual care, and the faint colours of her dress and the few ornaments she wore, shone and gleamed brightly in the level beams of the morning sun. She had guessed that Zoroaster would return that day, and she was prepared for him.
As she came suddenly upon him, she gave a little cry, that might well have been feigned.
"What! Are you already returned?" she asked, and the joy her voice expressed was genuine. He looked so godlike as he stood there in the sunlight--her heart leaped for joy of only seeing him.
"Yes--I bear this message from the Great King to the queen. The Great King commands that the queen send away her slaves, and await the king and him I have brought with me, in the space of a few minutes."
"It is well," answered Atossa, "There are no slaves here and I await the king." She was silent a moment. "Are you not glad to have come back?" she asked, presently.
"Yes," said Zoroaster, whose face brightened quickly as he spoke. "I am indeed glad to be here again. Would not any one be glad to have finished such a journey?"
The queen stood with her back to the curtained doorway and could see down the whole length of the balcony to the head of the staircase. Zoroaster faced her and the door. As he spoke, Atossa's quick eyes caught sight of a figure coming quickly up the last steps of the stairway. She recognised Nehushta instantly, but no trembling of her lids or colouring of her cheek, betrayed that she had seen the approach of her enemy. She fixed her deep-blue eyes upon Zoroaster's, and gazing somewhat sadly, she spoke in low and gentle tones:
"The time has seemed long to me since you rode away, Zoroaster," she said.
Zoroaster, astonished at the manner in which she spoke, turned pale, and looked down coldly at her beautiful face. At that moment Nehushta stepped upon the smooth marble pavement of the balcony.
Still Atossa kept her eyes fixed on Zoroaster's.
"You answer me nothing?" she said in broken tones. Then suddenly, as though acting under an irresistible impulse, she threw her arms wildly about his neck and kissed him passionately again and again.
"Oh Zoroaster, Zoroaster, my beloved!" she cried, "you must never, never leave me again!" And again she kissed him, and fell forward upon his breast, holding him so tightly that, for a moment, he did not know which way to move. He put his hands upon her shoulders, to her waist--to try to push her from him. But it was in vain; she clung to him desperately and sobbed upon his breast.
In the sudden and fearful embarrassment in which he was placed, he did not hear a short, low groan far off behind him, nor the sound of quickly retreating steps upon the stairs. But Atossa heard and rejoiced fiercely; and when she looked up, Nehushta was gone, with the incurable wound in her breast.
Atossa suddenly let her arms fall from the warrior's neck, looked into his eyes once, and then, with a short, sharp cry, she buried her face in her hands and leaned back against the door-post by the heavy striped curtain.
"Oh, my God! What have I done?" she moaned.
Zoroaster stood for one moment in hesitation and doubt. It seemed as though he had received a sudden revelation of numberless things he had never understood. He spoke quietly, at last, with a great effort, and his voice sounded kindly.
"I thank the good powers that I do not love thee--and I would that thou didst not love me. For I am the Great King's servant, faithful to death--and if I loved thee I should be a liar, and a coward, and the basest of all mankind. Forget, I pray thee, that thou hast spoken, and let me depart in peace. For the Great King is at hand, and thou must not suffer that he find thee weeping, lest he think thou fearest to meet Phraortes the Median face to face. Forget, I pray thee--and forgive thy servant if he have done anything amiss."
Atossa looked up suddenly. Her eyes were bright and clear, and there was not a trace of tears in them. She laughed harshly.
"I--weep before the king! You do not know me. Go, if thou wilt. Farewell, Zoroaster,"--her voice softened a little,--"farewell. It may be that you shall live, but it may be that you shall die, because I love you."
Zoroaster bent his head in respectful homage, and turned and went his way. The queen looked after him, and as he disappeared upon the staircase, she began to smooth her head-dress and the locks of her golden hair, and for a moment, she smiled sweetly to herself.
"That was a mortal wound, well dealt," she said aloud. But as she gazed out over the city, her face grew grave and thoughtful. "But I do love him," she added softly, "I do--I do--I loved him long ago." She turned quickly, as though fearing some one had overheard her. "How foolish I am!" she exclaimed impatiently; and she turned and passed away under the heavy curtain, leaving the long balcony once more empty,--save for the rush of a swallow that now and then flew in between the pillars, and hovered for a moment high up by the cornice, and sped out again into the golden sunshine of the summer morning.
Zoroaster left Atossa with the hope of finding some means of seeing Nehushta. But it was impossible. He knew well that he could not so far presume as to go to her apartment by the lower passage where he had last seen her on the day of his departure for Ecbatana, and the slave whom he despatched from the main entrance of the women's part of the palace returned with the brief information that Nehushta was alone in her chamber, and that no one dared disturb her.
Worn out with fatigue and excitement, and scarcely able to think connectedly upon the strange event of the morning, Zoroaster wearily resigned himself to seeing Nehushta at a later hour, and entering his own cool chamber, lay down to rest. It was evening when he awoke.
Meanwhile the king commanded that Phraortes should be fed and refreshed, and immediately brought to the queen's apartment. Half an hour after Zoroaster had left her, Atossa was in the chamber which was devoted to her toilet. She sat alone before her great silver mirror, calmly awaiting the turn of events. Some instinct had told her that she would feel stronger to resist an attack in the sanctuary of her small inner room, where every object was impregnated with her atmosphere, and where the lattices of the two windows were so disposed that she would be able to see the expression of her adversaries without exposing her own face to the light.
She leaned forward and looked closely at herself in the glass, and with a delicate brush of camel's hair smoothed one eyebrow that was a little ruffled. It had touched Zoroaster's tunic when she threw herself upon his breast; she looked at herself with a genuine artistic pleasure, and smiled.
Before long she heard the sound of leathern shoes upon the pavement outside, and the curtain was suddenly lifted. Darius pushed Phraortes into the room by the shoulders and made him stand before the queen. She rose and made a salutation, and then sat down again in her carved chair. The king threw himself upon a heap of thick, hard cushions that formed a divan on one side of the room, and prepared to watch attentively the two persons before him.
Phraortes, trembling with fear and excessive fatigue, fell upon his knees before Atossa, and touched the floor with his forehead.
"Get upon thy feet, man," said the king shortly, "and render an account of the queen's affairs."
"Stay," said Atossa, calmly; "for what purpose has the Great King brought this man before me?"
"For my pleasure," answered Darius. "Speak fellow! Render thy account, and if I like not the manner of thy counting, I will crucify thee."
"The king liveth for ever," said Phraortes feebly, his flaccid cheeks trembling, as his limbs moved uneasily.
"The queen also liveth for ever," remarked Darius. "What is the state of the queen's lands at Ecbatana?"
At this question Phraortes seemed to take courage, and began a rapid enumeration of the goods, cattle and slaves.
"This year I have sown two thousand acres of wheat which will soon be ripe for the harvest. I have sown also a thousand acres with other grain. The fields of water-melons are yielding with amazing abundance since I caused the great ditches to be dug last winter towards the road. As for the fruit trees and the vinelands, they are prospering; but at present we have not had rain to push the first budding of the grapes. The olives will doubtless be very abundant this year, for last year there were few, as is the manner with that fruit. As for the yielding of these harvests of grain and wine and oil and fruit, I doubt not that the whole sales will amount to an hundred talents of gold."
"Last year they only yielded eighty-five," remarked the queen, who had affected to listen to the whole account with the greatest interest. "I am well pleased, Phraortes. Tell me of the cattle and sheep--and of the slaves; whether many have died this year."
"There are five hundred head of cattle, and one hundred calves dropped in the last two months. From the scarcity of rain this year, the fodder has been almost destroyed, and there is little hay from the winter. I have, therefore, sent great numbers of slaves with camels to the farther plains to eastward, whence they return daily with great loads of hay--of a coarse kind, but serviceable. As for the flocks, they are now pasturing for the summer upon the slopes of the Zagros mountains. There were six thousand head of sheep and two thousand head of goats at the shearing in the spring, and the wool is already sold for eight talents. As for the slaves, I have provided for them after a new fashion. There were many young men from the captives that came after the war two years ago. For these I have purchased wives of the dealers from Scythia. These Scythians sell all their women at a low price. They are hideous barbarians, speaking a strange tongue, but they are very strong and enduring, and I doubt not they will multiply exceedingly and bring large profits--"
"Thou art extraordinarily fluent in thy speech," interrupted the king. "But there are details that the queen wishes to know. Thou art aware that in a frontier country like the province of Ecbatana, it is often necessary to protect the crops and the flocks from robbers. Hast thou therefore thought of arming any of these slaves for this purpose?"
"Let not the king be angry with his servant," returned Phraortes, without hesitation. "There are many thousand soldiers of the king in Echatana, and the horsemen traverse the country continually. I have not armed any of the slaves, for I supposed we were safe in the protection of the king's men. Nevertheless, if the Great King command me--"
"Thou couldst arm them immediately, I suppose?" interrupted Darius. He watched Atossa narrowly; her face was in the shadow.
"Nay," replied Phraortes, "for we have no arms. But if the king will give us swords and spearheads--"
"To what end?" asked Atossa. She was perfectly calm since she saw that there was no fear of Phraortes making a mistake upon this vital point. "What need have I of a force to protect lands that are all within a day's journey of the king's fortress? The idea of carrying weapons would make all the slaves idle and quarrelsome. Leave them their spades and their ploughs, and let them labour while the soldiers fight. How many slaves have I now, Phraortes?"
"There were, at the last return, fourteen thousand seven hundred and fifty-three men, ten thousand two hundred and sixteen women, and not less than five thousand children. But I expect--"
"What can you do with so many?" asked Darius, turning sharply to the queen.
"Many of them work in the carpet-looms," answered Phraortes. "The queen receives fifty talents yearly from the sales of the carpets."
"All the carpets in the king's apartments are made in my looms," said Atossa, with a smile. "I am a great merchant."
"I have no doubt I paid you dearly enough for them, too," said the king, who was beginning to be weary of the examination. He had firmly expected that either the Median agent, or the queen herself, would betray some emotion at the mention of arming the slaves, for he imagined that if Atossa had really planned any outbreak, she would undoubtedly have employed the large force of men she had at her disposal, by finding them weapons and promising them their liberty in the event of success.
He was disappointed at the appearance of the man Phraortes. He had supposed him a strong, determined, man of imperious ways and turbulent instincts, who could be easily led into revolution and sedition from the side of his ambition. He saw before him the traditional cunning, quick-witted merchant of Media, pale-faced and easily frightened; no more capable of a daring stroke of usurpation than a Jewish pedlar of Babylon. He was evidently a mere tool in the hands of the queen; and Darius stamped impatiently upon the floor when he thought that he had perhaps been deceived after all--that the queen had really written to Phraortes simply on account of her property, and that there was no revolution at all to be feared. Impulsive to the last degree, when the king had read the letter to Phraortes, his first thought had been to see the man for himself, to ask him a few questions and to put him at once to death if he found him untruthful. The man had arrived, broken with excessive fatigue and weak from the fearful journey; but under the very eye of the king, he had nevertheless given a clear and concise account of himself; and, though he betrayed considerable fear, he gave no reason for supposing that what he said was not true. As for the queen, she sat calmly by, polishing her nails with a small instrument of ivory, occasionally asking a question, or making a remark, as though it were all the most natural occurrence in the world.
Darius was impetuous and fierce. His intuitive decisions were generally right, and he acted upon them instantly, without hesitation; but he had no cunning and little strategy. He was always for doing and never for waiting; and to the extreme rapidity of his movements he owed the success he had. In the first three years of his reign he fought nineteen battles and vanquished nine self-styled kings; but he never, on any occasion, detected a conspiracy, nor destroyed a revolution before it had broken out openly. He was often, therefore, at the mercy of Atossa and frequently found himself baffled by her power of concealing a subtle lie under the letter of truth, and by her supreme indifference and coldness of manner under the most trying circumstances. In his simple judgment it was absolutely impossible for any one to lie directly without betraying some hesitation, and each time he endeavoured to place Atossa in some difficult position, when she must, he thought, inevitably betray herself, he was met by her inexplicable calm; which he was forced to attribute to the fact that she was in the right--no matter how the evidence might be against her.
The king decided that he had made a mistake in the present instance and that Phraortes was innocent of any idea of revolution. He could not conceive how such a man should be capable of executing a daring stroke of policy. He determined to let him go.
"You ought to be well satisfied with the result of these accounts," he said, staring hard at Atossa. "You see you know more of your affairs, and sooner, than you could have known if you had sent your letter. Let this fellow go, and tell him to send his accounts regularly in future, or he will have the pains of riding hither in haste to deliver them. Thou mayest go now and take thy rest," he added, rising and pushing the willing Phraortes before him out of the room.
"Thou hast done well. I am satisfied with thee, Phraortes," said Atossa coldly.
Once more the beautiful queen was left alone, and once more she looked at herself in the silver mirror, somewhat more critically than before. It seemed to her as she gazed and turned first one side of her face to the light and then the other, that she was a shade paler than usual. The change would have been imperceptible to any one else, but she noticed it with a little frown of disapproval. But presently she smoothed her brow and smiled happily to herself. She had sustained a terrible danger successfully.
She had hoped to have been able to warn Phraortes how to act; but, partly because the meeting had taken place so soon after his arrival, and partly because she had employed a portion of that brief interval with Zoroaster and in the scene she had suddenly invented and acted, she had been obliged to meet her chief agent without a moment's preparation, and she knew enough of his cowardly character to fear lest he should betray her and throw himself upon the king's mercy as a reward for the information he could give. But the crucial moment had passed successfully and there was nothing more to fear. Atossa threw herself upon the couch where the king had sat, and abandoned herself to the delicious contemplation of the pain she must have given in showing herself to Nehushta in Zoroaster's arms. She was sure that as the princess could not have seen Zoroaster's face, she must have thought that it was he who was embracing the queen. She must have suffered horribly, if she really loved him!
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