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Once more the spring months had come, and the fields grew green and the trees put forth their leaves. Four years had passed since Daniel had died in Ecbatana, leaving his legacy of wisdom to Zoroaster; and almost a year had gone by since Zoroaster had returned to the court at Stakhar. The time had sped very swiftly, except for Nehushta, whose life was heavy with a great weariness and her eyes hollow with suffering sleeplessness. She was not always the same, saving that she was always unhappy. There were days when she was resigned to her lot and merely hoped that it would soon be over; and she wondered how it was that she did not slip out of the gardens at evening, and go and sink her care and her great sorrow in the cool waves of the Araxes, far down below. But then the thought came over her that she must see his face once more; and it was always once more, so that the last time never came. And again, there were days when she hoped all things, madly, indiscriminately, without sequence--the king might die, Zoroaster might again love her, all might be well. But the mood of a hope that is senseless is very fleet, and despair follows close in its footsteps. Nehushta grew each time more sad, as she grew more certain that for her there was no hope.
At least it seemed as though Atossa had given up loving Zoroaster and thought no more of him than of another. Indeed Atossa seemed more anxious to please the king than formerly, in proportion as Darius seemed less easily pleased by her. But over all, Zoroaster's supremacy was felt in the palace, and though he was never known to be angry with any one, he was more feared than the fierce king himself, for his calm clear eyes were hard to meet and the words that fell from his lips had in them the ring of fate. Moreover, he was known and his power was dreaded from one end of the kingdom to the other, and his name was like the king's signet, which sealed all things, and there was no appeal.
Upon a fair morning in the spring-time, when the sun was shining outside upon the roses still wet with dew, the king sat in an inner hall, half lying upon a broad couch, on which the warm rays of the sun fell through an upper window. He was watching with absorbed attention the tricks of an Indian juggler who had lately arrived at the court, and whom he had summoned that morning to amuse a leisure hour, for when the king was not actively engaged in business, or fighting, he loved some amusement, being of a restless temper and mind that needed constant occupation.
Atossa sat near him, upon a carved chair, turning over and over in her fingers a string of pearls as she gazed at the performances of the juggler. Two spearmen, clad in blue and scarlet and gold, stood motionless by the door, and Darius and Atossa watched the sleight-handed Indian alone.
The man tossed a knife into the air and caught it, then two, then three, increasing the number in rapid succession till a score of bright blades made a shining circle in the air as he quickly tossed them up and passed them from hand to hand and tossed them again. Darius laughed at the man's skill, and looked up at the queen.
"You remind me of that fellow," said Darius.
"The king is very gracious to his handmaiden," answered Atossa, smiling, "I think I am less skilful, but more fair."
"You are fairer, it is true," returned the king; "but as for your skill, I know not. You seem always to be playing with knives, but you never wound yourself any more than he does."
The queen looked keenly at Darius, but her lips smiled gently. The thought crossed her mind that the king perhaps knew something of what had passed between her and Nehushta nearly a year before, with regard to a certain Indian dagger. The knives the juggler tossed in the air reminded her of it by their shape. But the king laughed gaily and she answered without hesitation:
"I would it were true, for then I could be not only the king's wife, but the king's juggler!"
"I meant not so," laughed Darius. "The two would hardly suit one another."
"And yet, I need more skill than this Indian fellow, to be the king's wife," answered the queen slowly.
"Said I not so?"
"Nay--but you meant not so," replied Atossa, looking down.
"What I say, I mean," he returned. "You need all the fairness of your face to conceal the evil in your heart, as this man needs all his skill in handling those sharp knives, that would cut off his fingers if, unawares, he touched the wrong edge of them."
"I conceal nothing," said the queen, with a light laugh. "The king has a thousand eyes--how should I conceal anything from him?"
"That is a question which I constantly ask myself," answered Darius. "And yet, I often think I know your thoughts less well than those of the black girl who fans you when you are hot, and whose attention is honestly concentrated upon keeping the flies from your face--or of yonder stolid spearmen at the door, who watch us, and honestly wish they were kings and queens, to lie all day upon a silken couch, and watch the tricks of a paid conjurer."
As Darius spoke, the guards he glanced at turned suddenly and faced each other, standing on each side of the doorway, and brought their heavy spears to the ground with a ringing noise. In a moment the tall, thin figure of Zoroaster, in his white robes, appeared between them. He stopped respectfully at the threshold, waiting for the king to notice him, for, in spite of his power and high rank, he chose to maintain rigidly the formalities of the court.
Darius made a sign and the juggler caught his whirling knives, one after the other, and thrust them into his bag, and withdrew.
"Hail, Zoroaster!" said the king. "Come near and sit beside me, and tell me your business."
Zoroaster came forward and made a salutation, but he remained standing, as though the matter on which he came were urgent.
"Hail, king, and live for ever!" he said. "I am a bearer of evil news. A rider has come speeding from Ecbatana, escaped from the confusion. Media has revolted, and the king's guards are besieged within the fortress of Ecbatana."
Darius sat upright upon the edge of his couch; the knotted veins upon his temples swelled with sudden anger and his brow flushed darkly.
"Doubtless it is Phraortes who has set himself up as king," he said. Then, suddenly and fiercely, he turned upon Atossa. "Now is your hour come," he cried in uncontrollable anger. "You shall surely die this day, for you have done this, and the powers of evil shall have your soul, which is of them, and of none other."
Atossa, for the first time in her whole life, turned pale to the lips and trembled, for she already seemed to taste death in the air. But even then, her boldness did not desert her, and she rose to her feet with a stateliness and a calmness that almost awed the king's anger to silence.
"Slay me if thou wilt," she said in a low voice, but firmly. "I am innocent of this deed." The great lie fell from her lips with a calmness that a martyr might have envied. But Zoroaster stepped between her and the king. As he passed her, his clear, calm eyes met hers for a moment. He read in her face the fear of death, and he pitied her.
"Let the king hear me," he said. "It is not Phraortes who has headed the revolt, and it is told me that Phraortes has fled from Ecbatana. Let the king send forth his armies and subdue the rebels, and let this woman go; for the fear of death is upon her and it may be that she has not sinned in this matter. And if she have indeed sinned, will the king make war upon women, or redden his hands with the blood of his own wife?"
"You speak as a priest--I feel as a man," returned the king, savagely. "This woman has deserved death many times--let her die. So shall we be free of her."
"It is not lawful to do this thing," returned Zoroaster coldly, and his glance rested upon the angry face of Darius, as he spoke, and seemed to subdue his furious wrath. "The king cannot know whether she have deserved death or not, until he have the rebels of Ecbatana before him. Moreover, the blood of a woman is a perpetual shame to the man who has shed it."
The king seemed to waver, and Atossa, who watched him keenly, understood that the moment had come in which she might herself make an appeal to him. In the suddenness of the situation she had time to ask herself why Zoroaster, whom she had so bitterly injured, should intercede for her. She could not understand his nobility of soul, and she feared some trap, into which she should fall by and by. But, meanwhile, she chose to appeal to the king's mercy herself, lest she should feel that she owed her preservation wholly to Zoroaster. It was a bold thought, worthy of a woman of her strength, in a moment of supreme danger.
With a quick movement she tore the tiara from her head and let it fall upon the floor. The mass of her silken hair fell all about her like a vesture of gold, and she threw herself at the king's feet, embracing his knees with a passionate gesture of appeal. Her face was very pale, and the beauty of it seemed to grow by the unnatural lack of colour, while her soft blue eyes looked up into the king's face with such an expression of imploring supplication that he was fain to acknowledge to himself that she moved his heart, for she had never looked so fair before. She spoke no word, but held his knees, and as she gazed, two beautiful great tears rolled slowly from under her eyelids, and trembled upon her pale, soft cheeks, and her warm, quick breath went up to his face.
Darius tried to push her from him, but she would not go, and he was forced to look at her, and his anger melted, and he smiled somewhat grimly, though his brows were bent.
"Go to," he said, "I jested. It is impossible for a man to slay anything so beautiful as you."
Atossa's colour returned to her cheeks, and bending down, she kissed the king's knees and his hands, and her golden hair fell all about her and upon the king's lap. But Darius rose impatiently, and left her kneeling by the couch. He was already angry with himself for having forgiven her, and he hated his own weakness bitterly.
"I will myself go hence at once with the guards, and I will take half the force from the fortress of Stakhar and go to Shushan, and thence, with the army that is there, I will be in Ecbatana in a few days. And I will utterly crush out these rebels who speak lies and do not acknowledge me. Remain here, Zoroaster, and govern this province until I return in triumph."
Darius glanced once more at Atossa, who lay by the couch, half upon it and half upon the floor, seemingly dazed at what had occurred; and then he turned upon his heel and strode out of the room between the two spearmen of the guard, who raised their weapons as he passed, and followed him with a quick, rhythmical tread down the broad corridor outside.
Zoroaster was left alone with the queen.
As soon as Darius was gone, Atossa rose to her feet, and with all possible calmness proceeded to rearrange her disordered hair and to place her head-dress upon her head. Zoroaster stood and watched her; her hand trembled a little, but she seemed otherwise unmoved by what had occurred. She glanced up at him from under her eyelids as she stood with her head bent down and her hands raised, to arrange her hair.
"Why did you beg the king to spare my life?" she asked. "You, of all men, must wish me dead."
"I do not wish you dead," he answered coldly. "You have yet much evil to do in the world, but it will not be all evil. Neither did I need to intercede for you. Your time is not come, and though the king's hand were raised to strike you, it would not fall upon you, for you are fated to accomplish many things."
"Do you not hate me, Zoroaster?"
It was one of the queen's chief characteristics that she never attempted concealment when it could be of no use, and in such cases affected an almost brutal frankness. She almost laughed as she asked the question--it seemed so foolish, and yet she asked it.
"I do not hate you," answered the priest. "You are beneath hatred."
"And I presume you are far above it?" she said very scornfully, and eyed him in silence for a moment. "You are a poor creature," she pursued, presently. "I heartily despise you. You suffered yourself to be deceived by a mere trick; you let the woman you loved go from you without an effort to keep her. You might have been a queen's lover, and you despised her. And now, when you could have the woman who did you a mortal injury be led forth to death before your eyes, you interceded for her and saved her life. You are a fool. I despise you."
"I rejoice that you do," returned Zoroaster coldly. "I would not have your admiration, if I might be paid for receiving it with the whole world and the wisdom thereof."
"Not even if you might have for your wife the woman you loved in your poor, insipid way--but you loved her nevertheless? She is pale and sorrowful, poor creature; she haunts the gardens like the shadow of death; she wearies the king with her wan face. She is eating her heart out for you--the king took her from you, you could take her from him to-morrow, if you pleased. The greater your folly, because you do not. As for her, her foolishness is such that she would follow you to the ends of the earth--poor girl! she little knows what a pale, wretched, sapless thing you have in your breast for a heart."
But Zoroaster gazed calmly at the queen in quiet scorn at her scoffing.
"Think you that the sun is obscured, because you can draw yonder curtain before your window and keep out his rays?" he asked. "Think you that the children of light feel pain because the children of darkness say in their ignorance that there is no light?"
"You speak in parables--having nothing plain to say," returned the queen, thrusting a golden pin through her hair at the back and through the folds of her linen tiara. But she felt Zoroaster's eyes upon her, and looking up, she was fascinated by the strange light in them. She strove to look away from him, but could not. Suddenly her heart sank within her. She had heard of Indian charmers and of Chaldean necromancers and wise men, who could perform wonders and slay their enemies with a glance. She struggled to take her eyes from his, but it was of no use. The subtle power of the universal agent had got hold upon her, and she was riveted to the spot so long as he kept his eyes upon her. He spoke again, and his voice seemed to come to her with a deafening metallic force, as though it vibrated to her very brain.
"You may scoff at me; shield yourself from me, if you can," said Zoroaster. "Lift one hand, if you are able--make one step from me, if you have the strength. You cannot; you are altogether in my power. If I would, I could kill you as you stand, and there would be no mark of violence upon you, that a man should be able to say you were slain. You boast of your strength and power. See, you follow the motion of my hand, as a dog would. See, you kneel before me, and prostrate yourself in the dust at my feet, at my bidding. Lie there, and think well whether you are able to scoff any more. You kneeled to the king of your own will; you kneel to me at mine, and though you had the strength of a hundred men, you must kneel there till I bid you rise."
The queen was wholly under the influence of the terrible power Zoroaster possessed. She was no more able to resist his will than a drowning man can resist the swift torrent that bears him down to his death. She lay at the priest's feet, helpless and nerveless. He gazed at her for a moment as she crouched before him.
"Rise," he said, "go your way, and remember me."
Relieved from the force of the subtle influence he projected, Atossa sprang to her feet and staggered back a few paces, till she fell upon the couch.
"What manner of man art thou?" she said, staring wildly before her, as though recovering from some heavy blow that had stunned her.
But she saw Zoroaster's white robes disappear through the door, even while the words were on her lips, and she sank back in stupefaction upon the cushions of the couch.
Meanwhile the trumpets sounded in the courts of the palace and the guards were marshalled out at the king's command. Messengers mounted and rode furiously up the valley to the fortress, to warn the troops there to make ready for the march; and before the sun reached the meridian, Darius was on horseback, in his armour, at the foot of the great staircase. The blazing noonday light shone upon his polished helmet and on the golden wings that stood out on either side of it, and the hot rays were sent flashing back from his gilded harness, and from the broad scales of his horse's armour.
The slaves of the palace stood in long ranks before the columns of the portico and upon the broad stairs on each side, and Zoroaster stood on the lowest step, attended by a score of his priests, to receive the king's last instructions.
"I go forth, and in two months I will return in triumph," said Darius. "Meanwhile keep thou the government in thy hand, and let not the laws be relaxed because the king is not here. Let the sacrifice be performed daily in the temple, and let all things proceed as though I myself were present. I will not that petty strifes arise because I am away. There shall be peace--peace--peace forever throughout my kingdom, though I shed much blood to obtain it. And all the people who are evildoers and makers of strife and sedition shall tremble at the name of Darius, the king of kings, and of Zoroaster, the high priest of the All-Wise. In peace I leave you, to cause peace whither I go; and in peace I will come again to you. Farewell, Zoroaster, truest friend and wisest counsellor; in thy keeping I leave all things. Take thou the signet and bear it wisely till I come."
Zoroaster received the royal ring and bowed a low obeisance. Then Darius pressed his knees to his horse's sides and the noble steed sprang forward upon the straight, broad road, like an arrow from a bow. The mounted guards grasped their spears and gathered their bridles in their hands and followed swiftly, four and four, shoulder to shoulder, and knee to knee, their bronze cuirasses and polished helmets blazing in the noonday sun and dashing as they galloped on; and in a moment there was nothing seen of the royal guard but a tossing wave of light far up the valley; and the white dust, that had risen, as they plunged forward, settled slowly in the still, hot air upon the roses and shrubs that hung over the enclosure of the garden at the foot of the broad staircase.
Zoroaster gazed for a moment on the track of the swift warriors; then went up the steps, followed by his priests, and entered the palace.
Atossa and Nehushta had watched the departure of the king from their upper windows, at the opposite ends of the building, from behind the gilded lattices. Atossa had recovered somewhat from the astonishment and fear that had taken possession of her when she had found herself under Zoroaster's strange influence, and as she saw Darius ride away, while Zoroaster remained standing upon the steps, her courage rose. She resolved that nothing should induce her again to expose herself to the chief priest's unearthly power, and she laughed to herself as she thought that she might yet destroy him, and free herself from him for ever. She wondered how she could ever have given a thought of love to such a man, and she summoned her black slave, and sent him upon his last errand, by which he was to obtain his freedom.
But Nehushta gazed sadly after the galloping guards, and her eye strove to distinguish the king's crest before the others, till all was mingled in the distance, in an indiscriminate reflection of moving light, and then lost to view altogether in the rising dust. Whether she loved him truly, or loved him not, he had been true and kind to her, and had rested his dark head upon her shoulder that very morning before he went, and had told her that, of all living women, he loved her best. But she had felt a quick sting of pain in her heart, because she knew that she would give her life to lie for one short hour on Zoroaster's breast and sob out all her sorrow and die.
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