When it was known that Zoroaster had returned, there was some stir in the palace. The news that he was made high priest soon reached Nehushta's ears, and she wondered what change had come over him in three years that could have made a priest of such a man. She remembered him young and marvellously fair, a warrior at all points, though at the same time an accomplished courtier. She could not imagine him invested with the robes of priesthood, leading a chorus of singers in the chanting of the hymns.
But it was not only as a chief priest that Darius had reinstalled Zoroaster in the palace. The king needed a counsellor and adviser, and the learned priest seemed a person fitted for the post.
On the following day, Nehushta, as was her wont, went out, in the cool of the evening, to walk in the gardens, attended by her maidens, her fan-girls and the slaves who bore her carpet and cushions in case she wished to sit down. She walked languidly, as though she hardly cared to lift her delicate slippered feet from the smooth walk, and often she paused and plucked a flower, and all her train of serving-women stopped behind her, not daring even to whisper among themselves, for the young queen was in no gentle humour of mind. Her face was pale and her eyes were heavy, for she knew the man she had so loved in other days was near, and though he had so bitterly deceived her, the sound of his sweet promises was yet in her ears; and sometimes, in her dreams, she felt the gentle breath of his mouth upon her sleeping lips, and woke with a start of joy that was but the forerunner of a new sadness.
Slowly she paced the walks of the rose-gardens, thinking of another place in the far north, where there had been roses, and myrtles too, upon a terrace where the moonlight was very fair.
As she turned a sharp corner where the overhanging shrubbery darkened the declining light to a dusky shade, she found herself face to face with the man of whom she was thinking. His tall thin figure, clad in spotless white robes, seemed like a shadow in the gloom, and his snowy beard and hair made a strange halo about his young face, that was so thin and worn. He walked slowly, his hands folded together, and his eyes upon the ground; while a few paces behind him two young priests followed with measured steps, conversing in low tones, as though fearing to disturb the meditations of their master.
Nehushta started a little and would have passed on, although she recognised the face of him she had loved. But Zoroaster lifted his eyes, and looked on her with so strange an expression that she stopped short in the way. The deep, calm light in his eyes awed her, and there was something in his majestic presence that seemed of another world.
"Hail, Nehushta!" said the high priest quietly.
But, at the sound of his voice, the spell was broken. The Hebrew woman lifted her head proudly, and her black eyes flashed again.
"Greet me not," she answered, "for the greeting of a liar is like the sting of the serpent that striketh unawares in the dark."
Zoroaster's face never changed, only his luminous eyes gazed on hers intently, and she paused again, as though riveted to the spot.
"I lie not, nor have lied to thee ever," he answered calmly. "Go thou hence, ask her whom thou hatest, whether I have deceived thee. Farewell."
He turned his gaze from her and passed slowly on, looking down to the ground, his hands folded before him. He left her standing in the way, greatly troubled and not understanding his saying.
Had she not seen with her eyes how he held Atossa in his arms on that evil morning in Shushan? Had she not seen how, when he was sent away, he had written a letter to Atossa and no word to herself? Could these things which she had seen and known, be untrue? The thought was horrible--that her whole life had perhaps been wrecked and ruined by a mistake. And yet there was not any mistake, she repeated to herself. She had seen; one must believe what one sees. She had heard Atossa's passionate words of love, and had seen Zoroaster's arms go round her drooping body; one must believe what one sees and hears and knows!
But there was a ringing truth in his voice just now when he said: "I lie not, nor have lied to thee ever." A lie--no, not spoken, but done; and the lie of an action is greater than the lie of a word. And yet, his voice sounded true just now in the dusk, and there was something in it, something like the ring of a far regret. "Ask her whom thou hatest," he had said. That was Atossa. There was no other woman whom she hated--no man save him.
She had many times asked herself whether or no she loved the king. She felt something for him that she had not felt for Zoroaster. The passionate enthusiasm of the strong, dark warrior sometimes carried her away and raised her with it; she loved his manliness, his honesty, his unchanging constancy of purpose. And yet Zoroaster had had all these, and more also, though they had shown themselves in a different way. She looked back and remembered how calm he had always been, how utterly superior in his wisdom. He seemed scarcely mortal, until he had one day fallen--and fallen so desperately low in her view, that she loathed the memory of that feigned calmness and wisdom and parity. For it must have been feigned. How else could he have put his arms about Atossa, and taken her head upon his breast, while she sobbed out words of love?
But if he loved Atossa, she loved him as well. She said so, cried it aloud upon the terrace where any one might have heard it. Why then had he left the court, and hidden himself so long in the wilderness? Why, before going out on his wanderings, had he disguised himself, and gone and stood where the procession passed, and hissed out a bitter insult as Nehushta went by? For her sake he had abandoned his brilliant life these three years, to dwell in the desert, to grow so thin and miserable of aspect that he looked like an old man. And his hair and beard were white--she had heard that a man might turn white from sorrow in a day. Was it grief that had so changed him? Grief to see her wedded to the king before his eyes? His voice rang so true: "Ask her whom thou hatest," he had said. In truth she would ask. It was all too inexplicable, and the sudden thought that she had perhaps wronged him three long years ago--even the possibility of the thought that seemed so little possible to her yesterday--wrought strangely in her breast, and terrified her. She would ask Atossa to her face whether Zoroaster had loved her. She would tell how she had seen them together upon the balcony, and heard Atossa's quick, hot words. She would threaten to tell the king; and if the elder queen refused to answer truth, she would indeed tell him and put her rival to a bitter shame.
She walked more quickly upon the smooth path, and her hands wrung each other, and once she felt the haft of that wicked Indian knife she ever wore. When she turned back and went up the broad steps of the palace, the moon was rising above the far misty hills to eastward, and there were lights beneath the columned portico. She paused and looked back across the peaceful valley, and far down below, a solitary nightingale called out a few melancholy notes, and then burst forth into glorious song.
Nehushta turned again to go in, and there were tears in her dark eyes, that had not stood there for many a long day. But she clasped her hands together, and went forward between the crouching slaves, straight to Atossa's apartment. It was not usual for any one to gain access to the eider queen's inner chambers without first obtaining permission, from Atossa herself, and Nehushta had never been there. They met rarely in public, and spoke little, though each maintained the appearances of courtesy; but Atossa's smile was the sweeter of the two. In private they never saw each other; and the queen's slaves would perhaps have tried to prevent Nehushta from entering, but her black eyes flashed upon them in such dire wrath as she saw them before her, that they crouched away and let her pass on unmolested.
Atossa sat, as ever at that hour in her toilet-chamber, surrounded by her tirewomen. The room was larger than the one at Shushan, for she had caused it to be built after her own plans; but her table was the same as ever, and upon it stood the broad silver mirror, which she never allowed to be left behind when she travelled.
Her magnificent beauty had neither changed nor faded in three years. Such strength as hers was not to be broken, nor worn out, by the mere petty annoyances of palace life. She could sustain the constant little warfare she waged against the king, without even so much as looking careworn and pale for a moment, though the king himself often looked dark and weary, and his eyes were heavy with sleeplessness for the trouble she gave him. Yet he could new determine to rid himself of her, even when he began to understand the profound badness of her character. She exercised a certain fascination over him, as a man grows fond of some beautiful, wicked beast he has half-tamed, though it turn and show its teeth at him sometimes, and be altogether more of a care than a pastime. She was so fair and evil that he could not hurt her; it would have seemed a crime to destroy anything so wondrously made. Moreover, she could amuse him and make many an hour pass pleasantly when she was so disposed.
She was fully attired for the banquet that was to take place late in the evening, but her women were still about her, and she looked at herself critically in the mirror, and would have changed the pinning of her tiara, so that her fair hair should fall forward upon one side, instead of backwards over her shoulder. She tried the effect of the change upon her face, and peered into the mirror beneath the bright light of the tall lamps; when, on a sudden, as she looked, she met the reflection of two angry dark eyes, and she knew that Nehushta was behind her.
She rose to her feet, turning quickly, and the sweep of her long robe overthrew the light carved chair upon the marble floor. She faced Nehushta with a cold smile that betrayed surprise at being thus interrupted in her toilet rather than any dread of the interview. Her delicate eyebrows arched themselves in something of scorn, but her voice came low and sweet as ever.
"It is rarely indeed that the queen Nehushta deigns to visit her servant," she said. "Had she sent warning of her coming, she would have been more fittingly received."
Nehushta stood still before her. She hated that cool, still voice that choked her like a tightening bow-string about her neck.
"We have small need of court formalities," answered the Hebrew woman, shortly. "I desire to speak with you alone upon a matter of importance."
"I am alone," returned Atossa, seating herself upon the carved chair, which one of the slaves had instantly set up again, and motioning to Nehushta to be seated. But Nehushta glanced at the serving-women and remained standing.
"You are not alone," she said briefly.
"They are not women--they are slaves," answered Atossa, with a smile.
"Will you not send them away?"
"Why should I?"
"You need not--I will," returned Nehushta. "Begone, and quickly!" she added, turning to the little group of women and slave-girls who stood together, looking on in wonder. At Nehushta's imperious command, they hurried through the door, and the curtains fell behind them. They knew Nehushta's power in the palace too well to hesitate to obey her, even in the presence of their own mistress.
"Strange ways you have!" exclaimed Atossa, in a low voice. She was fiercely angry, but there was no change in her face. She dangled a little chain upon her finger, and tapped the ground with her foot as she sat. That was all.
"I am not come here to wrangle with you about your slaves. They will obey me without wrangling. I met Zoroaster in the gardens an hour since."
"By a previous arrangement, of course?" suggested Atossa, with a sneer. But her clear blue eyes fixed themselves upon Nehushta with a strange and deadly look.
"Hold your peace and listen to me," said Nehushta in a fierce, low voice, and her slender hand stole to the haft of the knife by her side.
Atossa was a brave woman, false though she was; but she saw that the Hebrew princess had her in her power--she saw the knife and she saw the gleam in those black eyes. They were riveted on her face, and she grew grave and remained silent.
"Tell me the truth," pursued Nehushta hurriedly. "Did Zoroaster love you three years ago--when I saw you in his arms upon the terrace the morning when he came back from Ecbatana?"
But she little knew the woman with whom she had to deal. Atossa had found time in that brief moment to calculate her chances of safety. A weaker woman would have lied; but the fair queen saw that the moment had come wherein she could reap a rich harvest of vengeance upon her rival, and she trusted to her coolness and strength to deliver her if Nehushta actually drew the knife she wore.
"I loved him," she said slowly. "I love him yet, and I hate you more than I love him. Do you understand?"
"Speak--go on!" cried Nehushta, half breathless with anger.
"I loved him, and I hated you. I hate you still," repeated the queen slowly and gravely. "The letter I had from him was written to you--but it was brought to me. Nay--be not so angry, it was very long ago. Of course you can murder me, if you please--you have me in your power, and you are but a cowardly Jew, like twenty of my slave-women. I fear you not. Perhaps you would like to hear the end?"
Nehushta had come nearer and stood looking down at the beautiful woman, her arms folded before her. Atossa never stirred as Nehushta approached, but kept her eye steadily fixed on hers. Nehushta's arms were folded, and the knife hung below her girdle in its loose sheath.
Atossa's white arm went suddenly out and laid hold of the haft, and the keen blue steel flashed out of its scabbard with a sheen like dark lightning on a summer's evening.
Nehushta started back as she saw the sharp weapon in her enemy's hand. But Atossa laughed a low sweet laugh of triumph.
"You shall hear the end now," she said, holding the knife firmly in her hand. "You shall not escape hearing the end now, and you shall not murder me with your Indian poisoner here." She laughed again as she glanced at the ugly curve of the dagger. "I was talking with Zoroaster," she continued, "when I saw you upon the stairs, and then--oh, it was so sweet! I cried out that he should never leave me again, and I threw my arms about his neck--his lordly neck that you so loved!--and I fell, so that he had to hold me up. And you saw him. Oh, it was sweet! It was the sweetest moment of my life when I heard you groan and hurry away and leave us! It was to hurt you that I did it--that I humbled my queenliness before him; but I loved him, though--and he, he your lover, whom you despised then and cast away for this black-faced king of ours--he thrust me from him, and pushed me off, and drove me weeping to my chamber, and he said he loved me not, nor wished my love. Ay, that was bitter, for I was ashamed--I who never was shamed of man or woman. But there was more sweetness in your torment than bitterness in my shame. He never knew you were there. He screamed out to you from the crowd in the procession his parting curse on your unfaithfulness and went out--but he nearly killed those two strong spearmen who tried to seize him. How strong he was then, how brave! What a noble lover for any woman! So tall and delicate and fair with all his strength! He never knew why you left him--he thought it was to wear the king's purple, to thrust a bit of gold in your hair! He must have suffered--you have suffered too--such delicious torture, I have often soothed myself to sleep with the thought of it. It is very sweet for me to see you lying there with my wound in your heart. It will rankle long; you cannot get it out--you are married to the king now, and Zoroaster has turned priest for love of you. I think even the king would hardly love you if he could see you now--you look so pale. I will send for the Chaldean physician--you might die. I should be sorry if you died, you could not suffer any more then. I could not give up the pleasure of hurting you--you have no idea how delicious it is. Oh, how I hate you!"
Atossa rose suddenly to her feet, with flashing eyes. Nehushta, in sheer horror of such hideous cruelty, had fallen back against the door-post, and stood grasping the curtain with one hand while the other was pressed to her heart, as though to control the desperate agony she suffered. Her face was paler than the dead, and her long, black hair fell forward over her ghastly cheeks.
"Shall I tell you more?" Atossa began again. "Should you like to hear more of the truth? I could tell you how the king----"
But as she spoke, Nehushta threw up her hands and pressed them to her throbbing temples; and with a low wail, she turned and fled through the doorway between the thick curtains, that parted with her weight and fell together again when she had passed.
"She will tell the king," said Atossa aloud, when she was gone. "I care not--but I will keep the knife," she added, laying the keen blade upon the table, amid the little instruments of her toilet.
But Nehushta ran fast through the corridors and halls till she came to her slaves who had waited for her at the entrance to the queen's apartment. Then she seemed to recollect herself, and slackened her pace, and went on to her own chambers. But, her women saw her pale face, and whispered together as they cautiously followed her.
She was wretched beyond all words. In a moment, her doubts and her fears had all been realised, and the stain of unfaithfulness had been washed from the memory of her lover. But it was too late to repent her hastiness. She had been married to Darius now for nearly three years, and Zoroaster was a man so changed that she would hardly have recognised him that evening, had she not known that he was in the palace. He looked more like the aged Daniel whom he had buried at Ecbatana than like the lordly warrior of three years ago. She wondered, as she thought of the sound of his voice in the, garden, how she could ever have doubted him, and the remembrance of his clear eyes was both bitter and sweet to her.
She lay upon her silken pillows and wept hot tears for him she had loved long ago, for him and for herself--most of all for the pain she had made him suffer, for that bitter agony that had turned his young, fair locks to snowy white; she wept the tears for him that she could fancy he must have shed in those long years for her. She buried her face and sobbed aloud, so that even the black fan-girl who stood waving the long palm-leaf over her in the dim light of the bedchamber--even the poor black creature from the farther desert, whom her mistress did not half believe human, felt pity for the royal sorrow she saw, and took one hand from the fan to brush the tears from her small red eyes.
Nehushta's heart was broken, and from that day none saw her smile. In one hour the whole misery of all possible miseries came upon her, and bowed her to the ground, and crushed out the life and the light of her nature. As she lay there, she longed to die, as she had never longed for anything while she lived, and she would have had small hesitation in killing the heart that beat with such agonising pain in her breast--saving that one thought prevented her. She cared not for revenge any more. What was the life of that cold, cruel thing, the queen, worth, that by taking it, she could gain comfort? But she felt and knew that, before she died, she must see Zoroaster once more, and tell him that she knew all the truth--that she knew he had not deceived her, and that she implored his forgiveness for the wrong she had done him. He would let her rest her head upon his breast and weep out her heartful of piteous sorrow once before she died. And then--the quiet stream of the Araxes flowed softly, cold and clear, among the rose-gardens below the palace. The kindly water would take her to its bosom, beneath the summer's moon, and the nightingales she loved would sing her a gentle good-night--good-night for ever, while the cool wave flowed over her weary breast and aching head.