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It was now three years since Nehushta had been married to Darius, and the king loved her well. But often, in that time, he had been away from her, called to different parts of the kingdom by the sudden outbreaks of revolution which filled the early years of his reign. Each time he had come back in triumph, and each time he had given her some rich gift. He found indeed that he had no easy task to perform in keeping the peace between his two queens; for Atossa seemed to delight in annoying Nehushta and in making her feel that she was but the second in the king's favour, whatever distinctions might be offered her. But Darius was just and was careful that Atossa should receive her due, neither more nor less.
Nehushta was glad when Zoroaster was gone. She had suffered terribly in that moment when he had spoken to her out of the crowd, and the winged word had made a wound that rankled still. In those three years that passed, Atossa never undeceived her concerning the sight she had seen, and she still believed that Zoroaster had basely betrayed her. It was impossible, in her view, that it could be otherwise. Had she not seen him herself? Could any man do such an action who was not utterly base and heartless? She had, of course, never spoken to Darius of the scene upon the terrace. She did not desire the destruction of Atossa, nor of her faithless lover. Amid all the tender kindness the king lavished upon her, the memory of her first love endured still, and she could not have suffered the pain of going over the whole story again. He was gone, perhaps dead, and she would never see him again. He would not dare to set foot in the court. She remembered the king's furious anger against him, when he suspected that the hooded man in the procession was Zoroaster. But Darius had afterwards said, in his usual careless way, that he himself would have done as much, and that for his oath's sake, he would never harm the young Persian. By the grace of Auramazda he swore, he was the king of kings and did not make war upon disappointed lovers!
Meanwhile, Darius had built himself a magnificent palace, below the fortress of Stakhar, in the valley of the Araxes, and there he spent the winter and the spring, when the manifold cares of the state would permit him. He had been almost unceasingly at war with the numerous pretenders who set themselves up for petty kings in the provinces. With unheard-of rapidity, he moved from one quarter of his dominions to another, from east to west, from north to south; but each time that he returned, he found some little disturbance going on at the court, and he bent his brows and declared that a parcel of women were harder to govern than all Media, Persia, and Babylon together.
Atossa wearied him with her suggestions.
"When the king is gone upon an expedition," she said, "there is no head in the palace. Otanes is a weak man. The king will not give me the control of the household, neither will he give it to any one else."
"There is no one whom I can trust," answered Darius. "Can you not dwell together in peace for a month?"
"No," answered Atossa, with her winning smile, "it is impossible; the king's wives will never agree among themselves. Let the king choose some one and make a head over the palace."
"Whom shall I choose?" asked Darius, moodily.
"The king had a faithful servant once," suggested Atossa.
"Have I none now?"
"Yea, but none so faithful as this man of whom I speak, nor so ready to do the king's bidding. He departed from Shushan when the king took Nehushta to wife--"
"Mean you Zoroaster?" asked Darius, bending his brows, and eyeing Atossa somewhat fiercely. But she met his glance with indifference.
"The same," she answered. "Why not send for him and make him governor of the palace? He was indeed a faithful servant--and a willing one."
Still the king gazed hard at her face, as though trying to fathom the reason of her request, or at least to detect some scornful look upon her face to agree with her sneering words. But he was no match for the unparalleled astuteness of Atossa, though he had a vague suspicion that she wished to annoy him by calling up a memory which she knew could not be pleasant, and he retorted in his own fashion.
"If Zoroaster be yet alive I will have him brought, and I will make him governor of the palace. He was indeed a faithful servant--he shall rule you all and there shall be no more discord among you."
And forthwith the king issued a proclamation that whosoever should bring Zoroaster before him should receive a talent of gold and a robe of purple as a reward.
But when Nehushta heard of it she was greatly troubled; for Atossa began to tell her that Zoroaster was to return and to be made governor of the palace; but Nehushta rose and left her forthwith, with such a look of dire hatred and scorn that even the cold queen thought she had, perhaps, gone too far.
There were other reasons why the king desired Zoroaster's return. He had often wondered secretly how the man could so have injured Nehushta as to turn her love into hate in a few moments; but he had never questioned her. It was a subject neither of them could have approached, and Darius was far too happy in his marriage to risk endangering that happiness by any untoward discovery. Nehushta's grief and anger had been so genuine when she told him of Zoroaster's treachery that it had never occurred to him that he might be injuring the latter in marrying the princess, though his generous heart had told him more than once, that Nehushta had married him half from gratitude for his kindness, and half out of anger with her false lover; but, capricious as she was in all other things, towards the king she was always the same, gentle and affectionate, though there was nothing passionate in her love. And now, the idea of seeing the man who had betrayed her installed in an official position in the palace, was terrible to her pride. She could not sleep for thinking how she should meet him, and what she should do. She grew pale and hollow-eyed with the anticipation of evil and all her peace went from her. Deep down in her heart there was yet a clinging affection for the old love, which she smothered and choked down bravely; but it was there nevertheless, a sleeping giant, ready to rise and overthrow her whole nature in a moment, if only she could wash away the stain of faithlessness which sullied his fair memory, and lift the load of dishonour which had crushed him from the sovereign place he had held in the dominion of her soul.
Darius was himself curious to ascertain the truth about Zoroaster's conduct. But another and a weightier reason existed for which he wished him to return. The king was disturbed about a matter of vital importance to his kingdom, and he knew that, among all his subjects, there was not one more able to give him assistance and advice than Zoroaster, the pupil of the dead prophet Daniel.
The religion of the kingdom was of a most uncertain kind. So many changes had passed over the various provinces which made up the great empire that, for generations, there had been almost a new religion for every monarch. Cyrus, inclining to the idolatry of the Phoenicians, had worshipped the sun and moon, and had built temples and done sacrifice to them and to a multitude of deities. Cambyses had converted the temples of his father into places of fire-worship, and had burnt thousands of human victims; rejoicing in the splendour of his ceremonies and in the fierce love of blood that grew upon him as his vices obtained the mastery over his better sense. But under both kings the old Aryan worship of the Magians had existed among the people, and the Magians themselves had asserted, whenever they dared, their right to be considered the priestly caste, the children of the Brahmins of the Aryan house. Gomata--the false Smerdis--was a Brahmin, at least in name, and probably in descent; and during his brief reign the only decrees he issued from his retirement in the palace of Shushan, were for the destruction of the existing temples and the establishment of the Magian worship throughout the kingdom. When Darius had slain Smerdis, he naturally proceeded to the destruction of the Magi, and the streets of Shushan ran with their blood for many days. He then restored the temples and the worship of Auramazda, as well as he was able; but it soon became evident that the religion was in a disorganised state and that it would be no easy matter to enforce a pure monotheism upon a nation of men who, in their hearts, were Magians, nature-worshippers; and who, through successive reigns, had been driven by force to the adoration of strange idols. It followed that the people resisted the change and revolted whenever they could find a leader. The numerous revolutions, which cost Darius no less than nineteen battles, were, almost without exception, brought about in the attempt to restore the Magian worship in various provinces of the kingdom, and it may well be doubted whether, at any time in the world's history, an equal amount of blood was ever shed in so short a period in the defence of religious convictions.
Darius himself was a man who had the strongest belief in the power of Auramazda, the All-Wise God, and who did not hesitate to attribute all the evil in the world to Ahriman, the devil. He had a bitter contempt for all idolatry, nature-worship and superstition generally, and he adhered in his daily life to the simple practices of the ancient Mazdayashnians. But he was totally unfitted to be the head of a religious movement; and, although he had collected such of the priesthood as seemed most worthy, and had built them temples and given them privileges of all kinds, he was far from satisfied with their mode of worship. He could not frame a new doctrine, but he had serious doubts whether the ceremonies his priests performed were as simple and religious as he wished them to be. The chants, long hymns of endless repetition and monotony, were well enough, perhaps; the fire that was kept burning perpetually was a fitting emblem of the sleepless wisdom and activity of the Supreme Being in overcoming darkness with light. But the boundless intoxication into which the priests threw themselves by the excessive drinking of the Haoma, the wild and irregular acts of frenzy by which they expressed their religious fervour when under the influence of the subtle drink, were adjuncts to the simple purity of the bloodless sacrifice which disgusted the king, and he hesitated long as to some reform in these matters. The oldest Mazdayashnians declared that the drinking of Haoma was an act, at once pleasing to God and necessary to stimulate the zeal of the priests in the long and monotonous chanting, which would otherwise soon sink to a mere perfunctory performance of a wearisome task. The very repetition which the hymns contained seemed to prove that they were not intended to be recited by men not under some extraordinary influence. Only the wild madness of the Haoma drinker could sustain such an endless series of repeated prayers with fitting devotion and energy.
All this the king heard and was not satisfied. He attended the ceremonies with becoming regularity and sat through the performance of the rites with exemplary patience. But he was disgusted, and he desired a reform. Then he remembered how Zoroaster himself was a good Mazdayashnian, and how he had occupied himself with religious studies from his youth up, and how he had enjoyed the advantage of being the companion of Daniel, the Hebrew governor, whose grand simplicity of faith had descended, to some degree, upon his pupil. The Hebrews, Darius knew, were a sober people of the strongest religious convictions, and he had heard that, although eating formed, in some way, a part of their ceremonies, there was no intoxication connected with their worship. Zoroaster, he thought, would be able to give him advice upon this point, which would be good. In sending for the man he would fulfil the double purpose of seeming to grant the queen's request, and at the same time, of providing himself with a sage counsellor in his difficulties. With his usual impetuosity, he at once fulfilled his purpose, assuring himself that Zoroaster must have forgotten Nehushta by this time, and that he, the king, was strong enough to prevent trouble if he had not.
But many days passed, and though the proclamation was sent to all parts of the kingdom, nothing was heard of Zoroaster. His retreat was a sure one and there was no possibility of his being found.
Atossa, who in her heart longed for Zoroaster's return, both because by his means she hoped to bring trouble upon Nehushta, and because she still felt something akin to love for him, began to fear that he might be dead, or might have wandered out of the kingdom; but Nehushta herself knew not whether to hope that he would return, or to rejoice that she was to escape the ordeal of meeting him. She would have given anything to see him for a moment, to decide, as it were, whether she wished to see him, or not. She was deeply disturbed by the anxiety she felt and longed to know definitely what she was to expect.
She began to hate Stakhar with its splendid gardens and gorgeous colonnades, with its soft southern air that blew across the valley of roses all day long, wafting up a wondrous perfume to the south windows. She hated the indolent pomp in which she lived and the idle luxury of her days. Something in her hot-blooded Hebrew nature craved for the blazing sun and the sand-wastes of Syria, for the breath of the desert and for the burning heat of the wilderness. She had scarcely ever seen these things, for she had sojourned during the one-and-twenty years of her life, in the most magnificent palaces of the kingdom, and amid the fairest gardens the hand of man could plant. But the love of the sun and of the sand was bred in the blood. She began to hate the soft cushions and the delicate silks and the endless flowers scenting the heavy air.
Stakhar itself was a mighty fortress, in the valley of the Araxes, rising dark and forbidding from the banks of the little river, crowned with towers and turrets and massive battlements, that overlooked the fertile extent of gardens, as a stern schoolmaster frowning over a crowd of fair young children. But Darius had chosen the site of his palace at some distance from the stronghold; where the river bent suddenly round a spur of the mountain, and watered a wider extent of land. The spur of the hill ran down, by an easy gradation, into the valley; and beyond it the hills separated into the wide plain of Merodasht that stretched southward many farsangs to the southern pass. Upon this promontory the king had caused to be built a huge platform which was ascended by the broadest flight of steps in the whole world, so easy of gradation that a man might easily have ridden up and then down again without danger to his horse. Upon the platform was raised the palace, a mighty structure resting on the vast columned porticoes and halls, built entirely of polished black marble, that contrasted strangely with the green slopes of the hills above and with the bright colours of the rose-gardens. Endless buildings rose behind the palace, and stretched far down towards the river below it. Most prominent of those above was the great temple of Auramazda, where the ceremonies were performed which gave Darius so much anxiety. It was a massive, square building, lower than the palace, consisting of stone walls surrounded by a deep portico of polished columns. It was not visible from the great staircase, being placed immediately behind the palace and hidden by it.
[Footnote 8: Istakhar, called since the conquest of Alexander, Persepolis.]
The walls and the cornices and the capitals of the pillars were richly sculptured with sacrificial processions, and long trains of soldiers and captives, with great inscriptions of wedge-shaped letters, and with animals of all sorts. The work was executed by Egyptian captives; and so carefully was the hard black marble carved and polished, that a man could see his face in the even surfaces, and they sent back the light like dark mirrors.
The valley above Stakhar was grand in its great outlines of crags and sharp, dark peaks, and the beetling fortress upon its rocky base, far up the gorge, seemed only a jutting fragment of the great mountain, thrown off and separated from the main chain by an earthquake, or some vast accident of nature. But from the palace itself the contrast of the views was great. On one side, the rugged hills, crag-crowned and bristling black against the north-western sky; on the other, the great bed of rose-gardens and orangeries and cultivated enclosures filled the plain, till in the dim distance rose the level line of the soft blue southern hills, blending mistily in the lazy light of a far-off warmth. It seemed as though on one side of the palace were winter, and on the other summer; on the one side cold, and on the other heat; on the one side rough strength, and on the other gentle rest.
But Nehushta gazed northward and was weary of the cold, and southward, and she wearied of the heat. There was nothing--nothing in it all that was worth one moment of the old sweet moonlit evenings among the myrtles at Ecbatana. When she thought, there was nothing of all her royal state and luxury that she would not readily give to have had Zoroaster remain faithful to her. She had put him away from her heart, driven him out utterly, as she believed; but now that he was spoken of again, she knew not whether she loved him a little in spite of all his unfaithfulness, or whether it was only the memory of the love she had felt before which stirred in her breast, and made her unconsciously speak his name when she was alone.
She looked back over the three years that were passed, and she knew that she had done her duty by the king. She knew also that she had done it willingly, and that there had been many moments when she said to herself that she loved Darius dearly. Indeed, it was not hard to find a reason for loving him, for he was brave and honest and noble in all his thoughts and ways; and whatever he had been able to do to show his love for Nehushta, he had done. It was not the least of the things that had made her life pass so easily, that she felt daily how she was loved before her rival, and how, in her inmost heart, Atossa chafed at seeing Darius forsake her society for that of the Hebrew princess. If the king had wearied of her, Nehushta would very likely have escaped from the palace, and gone out to face any misfortunes the world might hold for her, rather than remain to bear the scoffing of the fair smiling woman she so hated. Or, she would have stolen in by night to where Atossa slept, and the wicked-looking Indian knife she wore, would have gone down, swift and sure, to the very haft, into the queen's heart. She would not have borne tamely any slight upon her beauty or her claims. But, as it was, she reigned supreme. The king was just, and showed no difference in the state and attendance of the two queens, but it was to Nehushta he turned, when he drank deep at the banquet and pledged the loving cup. It was to Nehushta that he went when the cares of state were heavy and he needed counsel; and it was upon her lap he laid his weary head, when he had ridden far and fast for many days, returning from some hard-fought field.
But the queens hated each other with a fierce hatred, and when Darius was absent, their divisions broke out sometimes into something like open strife. Their guards buffeted each other in the courts, and their slave-women tore out each other's hair upon the stairways. Then, when the king returned, there reigned an armed peace for a time, which none dared break. But rumours of the disturbances that had taken place often reached the royal ears, and Darius was angry and swore great oaths, but could do nothing; being no wiser than many great men who have had to choose between the caprices of two women who hated each other.
Now the rumour went abroad that Zoroaster would return to the court; and for a space, the two queens kept aloof, for both knew that if he came back, some mortal conflict would of necessity arise between them; and each watched the other, and was cautious.
The days passed by, but no one answered the proclamation. No one had seen or heard of Zoroaster, since the night when he left the palace at Shushan. He had taken nothing with him, and had left no trace behind to guide the search. Many said he had left the kingdom; some said he was dead in the wilderness. But Nehushta sighed and took little rest, for do what she would, she had hoped to see him once more.
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