On the next day, in the cool of the evening, Nehushta walked again in the garden. But Zoroaster was not there. And for several days Nehushta came at that hour, and at other hours in the day, but found him not. She saw him indeed from time to time in public, but she had no opportunity of speaking with him as she desired. At last, she determined to send for him, and to see whether he would come, or not.
She went out, attended only by two slaves; the one bearing a fan and the other a small carpet and a cushion--black women from the southern parts of Syria, towards Egypt, who would not understand the high Persian she would be likely to speak with Zoroaster, though her own Hebrew tongue was intelligible to them. When she reached a quiet spot, where one of the walks ended suddenly in a little circle among the rose-trees, far down from the palace, she had her carpet spread, and her cushion was placed upon it, and she wearily sat down. The fan-girl began to ply her palm-leaf, as much to cool the heated summer air as to drive away the swarms of tiny gnats which abounded in the garden. Nehushta rested upon one elbow, her feet drawn together upon the carpet of dark soft colours and waited a few minutes as though in thought. At last she seemed to have decided, and turned to the slave who had brought her cushion, as she stood at a little distance, motionless, her hands folded and hidden under the thickness of the broad sash that girded her tunic at the waist.
"Go thou," said the queen, "and seek out the high priest Zoroaster, and bring him hither quickly."
The black woman turned and ran like a deer down the narrow path, disappearing in a moment amongst the shrubbery.
The breeze of the swinging fan blew softly on Nehushta's pale face and stirred the locks of heavy hair that fell from her tiara about her shoulders. Her eyes were half closed as she leaned back, and her lips were parted in a weary look of weakness that was new to her. Nearly an hour passed and the sun sank low, but Nehushta hardly stirred from her position.
It seemed very long before she heard steps upon the walk--the quick soft step of the slave-woman running before, barefooted and fleet, and presently the heavier tread of a man's leather shoe. The slave stopped at the entrance to the little circle of rose-trees, and a moment later, Zoroaster strode forward, and stood still and made a deep obeisance, a few steps from Nehushta.
"Forgive me that I sent for thee, Zoroaster," said the queen in quiet tones. But, as she spoke, a slight blush overspread her face, and relieved her deadly pallor. "Forgive me--I have somewhat to say which thou must hear."
Zoroaster remained standing before her as she spoke, and his luminous eyes rested upon her quietly.
"I wronged thee three years ago, Zoroaster," said the queen in a low voice, but looking up at him. "I pray thee, forgive me--I knew not what I did."
"I forgave thee long ago," answered the high priest.
"I did thee a bitter wrong--but the wrong I did myself was even greater. I never knew till I went and asked--her!" At the thought of Atossa, the Hebrew woman's eyes flashed fire, and her small fingers clenched upon her palm. But, in an instant, her sad, weary look returned.
"That is all--if you forgive me," she said, and turned her head away. It seemed to her that there was nothing more to be said. He did not love her--he was far beyond love.
"Now, by Ahura Mazda, I have indeed forgiven thee. The blessing of the All-Wise be upon thee!" Zoroaster bent again, as though to take his leave, and he would have gone from her.
But when she heard his first footsteps, Nehushta raised herself a little and turned quickly towards him. It seemed as though the only light she knew were departing from her day.
"You loved me once," she said, and stopped, with an appealing look on her pale face. It was very, weak of her; but oh! she was far spent with sorrow and grief. Zoroaster paused, and looked back upon her, very calmly, very gently.
"Ay--I loved you once--but not now. There is no more love in the earth for me. But I bless you for the love you gave me."
"I loved you so well," said Nehushta. "I love you still," she added, suddenly raising herself and gazing on him with a wild look in her eyes. "Oh, I love you still!" she cried passionately. "I thought I had put you away--forgotten you--trodden out your memory that I so hated I could not bear to hear your name! Ah! why did I do it, miserable woman that I am! I love you now--I love you--I love you with my whole heart--and it is too late!" She fell back upon her cushion, and covered her face with her hands, and her breast heaved with passionate, tearless sobbing.
Zoroaster stood still, and a deep melancholy came over his beautiful, ethereal face. No regret stirred his breast, no touch of the love that had been waked his heart that slept for ever in the peace of the higher life. He would not have changed from himself to the young lover of three years ago, if he had been able. But he stood calm and sorrowful, as an angel from heaven gazing on the grief of the world--his thoughts full of sympathy for the pains of men, his soul still breathing the painless peace of the outer firmament whence he had come and whither he would return.
"Nehushta," he said at last, seeing that her sobbing did not cease, "it is not meet that you should thus weep for anything that is past. Be comforted; the years of life are few, and you are one of the great ones of the earth. It is needful that all should suffer. Forget not that although your heart be heavy, you are a queen, and must bear yourself as a queen. Take your life strongly in your hands and live it. The end is not far and your peace is at hand."
Nehushta looked up suddenly and grew very grave as he spoke. Her heavy eyes rested on his, and she sighed--but the sigh was still broken, by the trembling of her past sobs.
"You, who are a priest and a prophet," she said,--"you, who read the heaven as it were a book--tell me, Zoroaster, is it not far? Shall we meet beyond the stars, as you used to tell me--so long ago?"
"It is not far," he answered, and a gentle smile illuminated his pale face. "Take courage--for truly it is not far."
He gazed into her eyes for a moment, and it seemed as though some of that steadfast light penetrated into her soul, for as he turned and went his way among the roses, a look of peace descended on her tired face, and she fell back upon her cushion and closed her eyes, and let the breeze of the palm-fan play over her wan cheeks and through her heavy hair.
But Zoroaster returned into the palace, and he was very thoughtful. He had many duties to perform, besides the daily evening sacrifice in the temple, for Darius consulted him constantly upon many matters connected with the state; and on every occasion Zoroaster's keen foresight and knowledge of men found constant exercise in the development of the laws and statutes Darius was forming for his consolidated kingdom. First of all, the question of religion seemed to him of paramount importance; and here Zoroaster displayed all his great powers of organisation, as well as the true and just ideas he held upon the subject. Himself an ascetic mystic, he foresaw the danger to others of attempting to pursue the same course, or even of founding a system of mystical study. The object of mankind must be the welfare of mankind, and a set of priests who should shut themselves off from their fellow-men to pursue esoteric studies and to acquire knowledge beyond the reach of common humanity, must necessarily forget humanity itself in their effort to escape from it. The only possible scheme upon which a religion for the world could be based--especially for such a world as the empire of Darius--must be one where the broad principle of common good living stood foremost, and where the good of all humanity should be the good of each man's soul.
The vast influence of Zoroaster's name grew day by day, as from the palace of Stakhar he sent forth priests to the various provinces, full of his own ideas, bearing with them a simple form of worship and a rigid rule of life, which the iron laws of Darius began at once to enforce to the letter. The vast body of existing hymns, of which many were by no means distinctly Mazdayashnian, were reduced to a limited number containing the best and purest; and the multifarious mass of conflicting caste practices, partly imported from India, and partly inherited by the pure Persians from the Aryan home in Sogdiana, was simplified and reduced to a plain rule. The endless rules of purification were cut down to simple measures of health; the varying practices in regard to the disposal of the dead were all done away with by a great royal edict commanding the building of Dakhmas, or towers of death, all over the kingdom; within which the dead were laid by persons appointed for the purpose, and which were cleansed by them, at stated intervals. Severe measures were taken to prevent the destruction of cattle, for there were evident signs of the decrease of the beasts of the field in consequence of the many internal wars that had waged of late; and special laws were provided for the safety of dogs, which were regarded, for all reasons, as the most valuable companions of men in those times, as a means of protection to the flocks in the wilderness, and as the scavengers and cleansers of the great cities. Human life was protected by the most rigorous laws, and the utmost attention was given to providing for the treatment of women of all classes. It would have been impossible to conceive a system better fitted to develop the resources of a semi-pastoral country, to preserve peace and to provide for the increasing wants and the public health of a multiplying people.
As for the religious rites, they assumed a form and a character which made them seem like simplicity itself by the side of the former systems; and which, although somewhat complicated by the additions and alterations of a later and more superstitious, generation, have still maintained the noble and honourable characteristics imparted to them by the great reformer and compiler of the Mazdayashnian religion.
The days flew quickly by, and Zoroaster's power grew apace. It was as though the whole court and kingdom had been but waiting for him to come and be the representative of wisdom and justice beside the conquering king, who had in so short a time reduced so many revolutions and fought so many fields in the consolidation of his empire. Zoroaster laid hold of all the existing difficulties with a master-hand. His years of retirement seemed to have given him the accumulated force of many men, and the effect of his wise measures was quickly felt in every quarter of the provinces; while his words went forth like fire in the mouths of the priests he sent from Stakhar. He had that strange and rare gift, whereby a man inspires in his followers the profoundest confidence and the greatest energy to the performance of his will. He would have overthrown a world had he found himself resisted and oppressed, but every one of his statutes and utterances was backed by the royal arms and enforced by decrees against which there was no appeal. In a few months his name was spoken wherever the Persian rule was felt, and spoken everywhere with a high reverence; in which there was no fear mixed, such as people felt when they mentioned the Great King, and added quickly: "May he live for ever!"
In a few months the reform was complete, and the half-clad ascetic had risen by his own wisdom and by the power of circumstances into the chiefest position in all Persia. Loaded with dignities, treated as the next to the Great King in all things, wearing the royal chain of office over his white priest's robes, and sitting at the right hand of Darius at the feast, Zoroaster nevertheless excited no envy among the courtiers, nor encroached in any way upon their privileges. The few men whom Darius trusted were indeed rarely at Stakhar,--the princes who had conspired against Smerdis, and Hydarnes and a few of the chief officers of the army,--they were mostly in the various provinces, in command of troops and fortresses, actively employed in enforcing the measures the king was framing with Zoroaster, and which were to work such great changes in the destinies of the empire. But when any of the princes or generals were summoned to the court by the king and learned to know what manner of man this Zoroaster was, they began to love him and to honour him also, as all those did who were near him. And they went away, saying that never king had so wise and just a counsellor as he was, nor one so worthy of trust in the smallest as in the greatest things.
But the two queens watched him, and watched his growing power, with different feelings. Nehushta scarcely ever spoke to him, but gazed at him from her sad eyes when none saw her; pondering over his prophecy that foretold the end so near at hand. She had a pride in seeing her old lover the strongest in the whole land, holding the destinies of the kingdom as in a balance; and it was a secret consolation to her to know that he had been faithful to her after all, and that it was for her sake that he had withdrawn into the desert and given himself to those meditations from which he had only issued to enjoy the highest power. And as she looked at him, she saw how he was much changed, and it hardly seemed as though in his body he were the same man she had so loved. Only when he spoke, and she heard the even, musical tones of his commanding voice, she sometimes felt the blood rise to her cheeks with the longing to hear once more some word of tender love, such as he had been used to speak to her. But though he often looked at her and greeted her ever kindly, his quiet, luminous eyes changed not when they gazed on her, nor was there any warmer touch of colour in the waxen whiteness of his face. His youth was utterly gone, as the golden light had faded from his hair. He was not like an old man--he was hardly like a man at all; but rather like some beautiful, strange angel from another world, who moved among men and spoke with them, but was not of them. She seemed to look upon a memory, to love the shadow cast on earth by a being that was gone. But she loved the memory and the shadow well, and month by month, as she gazed, she grew more wan and weary.
It would not have been like Darius to take any notice of a trouble that did not present itself palpably before him and demand his attention. Nehushta scarcely ever spoke of Zoroaster, and when the king mentioned him to her, it was always in connection with affairs of state. She seemed cold and indifferent, and the hot-blooded soldier monarch no longer looked on Zoroaster as a possible rival. He had white hair--he was therefore an old man, out of all questions of love. But Darius was glad that the Hebrew queen never referred to former times, nor ever seemed to regret her old lover. Had he known of that night meeting in Atossa's toilet chamber, and of what Atossa had said then, his fury would probably have had no bounds. But he never knew. Nehushta was too utterly broken-hearted by the blow she had received to desire vengeance, and though she quietly scorned all intercourse with the woman who had injured her, she cared not to tell the king of the injury. It was too late. Had she known of the cruel deception that had been practised on her, one hour before she had married Darius, Atossa would have been in her grave these three years, and Nehushta would not have been queen. But the king knew none of these things, and rejoiced daily in the wisdom of his chief counsellor and in the favour Auramazda had shown in sending him such a man in his need.
Meanwhile, Atossa's hatred grew apace. She saw with anger that her power of tormenting Nehushta was gone from her, that the spirit she had loved to torture was broken beyond all sensibility, and that the man who had scorned her love was grown greater than she. Against his wisdom and the king's activity, she could do little, and her strength seemed to spend itself in vain. Darius laughed mercilessly at her cunning objections to Zoroaster's reforms; and Zoroaster himself eyed hear coldly, and passed her by in silence when they met.
She bethought herself of some scheme whereby to destroy Zoroaster's power by a sudden and violent shock; and for a time, she affected at more than usual serenity of manner, and her smile was sweeter than ever. If it were possible, she thought, to attract the king's attention and forces to some distant point, it would not be a difficult matter to produce a sudden rising or disturbance in Stakhar, situated as the place was upon the very extreme border of the kingdom, within a few hours' march across the hills from the uncivilised desert country, which was infested at that time with hostile and turbulent tribes. She had a certain number of faithful retainers at her command still, whom she could employ as emissaries in both directions, and in spite of the scene that had taken place at Shushan when Phraortes was brought to her by the king, she knew she could still command his services for a revolution. He was a Magian at heart, and hated the existing monarchy. He was rich and powerful, and unboundedly vain--he could easily be prevailed upon to accept the principality of Media as a reward for helping to destroy the Persian kingdom; and indeed the matter had been discussed between him and the queen long ago.
Atossa revolved her scheme in her mind most carefully for two whole months, and at last she resolved to act. Eluding all vigilance of the king, and laughing to herself at the folly of Darius and Zoroaster in allowing her such liberty, she succeeded without much trouble in despatching a letter to Phraortes, inquiring whether her affairs were now in such a prosperous condition as to admit of their being extended.
On the other hand, she sent a black slave she owned, with gifts, into the country of the barbarian tribes beyond the hills, to discover whether they could be easily tempted. This man she bribed with the promise of freedom and rich possessions, to undertake the dangerous mission. She knew him to be faithful, and able to perform the part he was to play.
In less than two months Phraortes sent a reply, wherein he stated that the queen's affairs were so prosperous that they might with safety be extended as she desired, and that he was ready to undertake any improvements provided she sent him the necessary directions and instructions.
The slave returned from the land of the dwellers in tents, with the information that they were numerous as the sands of the sea, riding like the whirlwinds across the desert, keen as a race of eagles for prey, devouring as locusts spreading over a field of corn, and greedy as jackals upon the track of a wounded antelope. Nothing but the terror of the Great King's name restrained them within their boundaries; which they would leave at a moment's notice, as allies of any one who would pay them. They dwelt mostly beyond the desert to eastward in the low hill country; and they shaved their beards and slept with their horses in their tents. They were more horrible to look upon than the devils of the mountains, and fiercer than wolves upon the mountain paths.
Allowing for the imagery of her slave's account, Atossa comprehended that the people described could be easily excited to make a hostile descent upon the southern part of the kingdom, and notably upon the unprotected region about Stakhar, where the fortress could afford shelter to a handful of troops and fugitives, but could in no wise defend the whole of the fertile district from a hostile incursion.
Atossa spent much time in calculating the distance from the palace to the fortress, and she came to the conclusion that a body of persons moving with some encumbrance might easily reach the stronghold in half a day. Her plan was a simple one, and easy of execution; though there was no limit to the evil results its success might have upon the kingdom.
She intended that a revolution should break out in Media, not under the leadership of Phraortes, lest she herself should perish, having been already suspected of complicity with him. But a man could be found--some tool of her powerful agent, who could be readily induced to set himself up as a pretender to the principality of the province, and he could easily be crushed at a later period by Phraortes, who would naturally furnish the money and supplies for the insurrection.
As soon as the news reached Stakhar, Darius would, in all probability, set out for Media in haste to arrive at the scene of the disturbance. He would probably leave Zoroaster behind to manage the affairs of state, which had centred in Stakhar during the last year and more. If, however, he took him with him, and left the court to follow on as far as Shushan, Atossa could easily cause an incursion of the barbarous tribes from the desert. The people of the south would find themselves abandoned by the king, and would rise against him, and Atossa could easily seize the power. If Zoroaster remained behind, the best plan would be to let the barbarians take their own course and destroy him. Separated from any armed force of magnitude sufficient to cope with a sudden invasion, he would surely fall in the struggle, or take refuge in an ignominious flight. With the boldness of her nature, Atossa trusted to circumstances to provide her with an easy escape for herself; and in the last instance, she trusted, as she had ever done, to her marvellous beauty to save her from harm. To her beauty alone she owed her escape from many a fit of murderous anger in the time of Cambyses, and to her beauty she owed her salvation when Darius found her at Shushan, the wife and accomplice of the impostor Smerdis. She might again save herself by that means, if by no other, should she, by any mischance, fall into the hands of the barbarians. But she was determined to overthrow Zoroaster, even if she had to destroy her husband's kingdom in the effort. It was a bold and simple plan, and she doubted not of being successful.
During the months while she was planning these things, she was very calm and placid; her eyes met Zoroaster's with a frank and friendly glance that would have disarmed one less completely convinced of her badness; and her smile never failed the king when he looked for it. She bore his jests with unfailing equanimity and gentleness, for she felt that she should not have to bear them long. Even to Nehushta she gave an occasional glance as though of hurt sympathy--a look that seemed to say to the world that she regretted the Hebrew queen's sullen temper and moody ways, so different from her own, but regarded them all the while as the outward manifestation of some sickness, for which she was to be pitied rather than blamed.
But, as the time sped, her heart grew more and more glad, for the end was at hand, and there was a smell of death in the air of the sweet rose-valley.