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In Ecbatana of Media Daniel dwelt in his extreme old age. There he built himself a tower within the seven-fold walls of the royal fortress, upon the summit of the hill, looking northward towards the forests of the mountains, and southward over the plain, and eastward to the river, and westward to Mount Zagros. His life was spent, and he was well-nigh a hundred years old. Seventeen years had passed since he had interpreted the fatal writing on the wall of the banquet-hall in Babylon in the night when Nabonnedon Belshazzar was slain, and the kingdom of the Assyrians destroyed for ever. Again and again invested with power and with the governorship of provinces, he had toiled unceasingly in the reigns of Cyrus and Cambyses, and though he was on the very boundary of possible lifetime, his brain was unclouded, and his eye keen and undimmed still. Only his grand figure was more bent and his step slower than before.
He dwelt in Ecbatana of the north, in the tower he had built for himself. In the midst of the royal palaces of the stronghold he had laid the foundations duly to the north and south, and story upon story had risen, row upon row of columns, balcony upon balcony of black marble, sculptured richly from basement to turret, and so smooth and hard, that its polished corners and sides and ornaments glittered like black diamonds in the hot sun of the noonday, and cast back the moonbeams at night in a darkly brilliant reflection.
[Footnote 1: Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book x. chap. xi. 7.]
Far down below, in the gorgeous dwellings that filled the interior of the fortress, dwelt the kinsfolk of the aged prophet, and the families of the two Levites who had remained with Daniel and had chosen to follow him to his new home in Media rather than to return to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel, when Cyrus issued the writ for the rebuilding of the temple. There lived also in the palace Zoroaster, the Persian prince, being now in the thirty-first year of his age, and captain of the city and of the stronghold. And there, too, surrounded by her handmaidens and slaves, in a wing of the palace apart from the rest, and more beautiful for its gardens and marvellous adornment, lived Nehushta, the last of the descendants of Jehoiakim the king remaining in Media; she was the fairest of all the women in Media, of royal blood and of more than royal beauty.
She was born in that year when Babylon was overthrown, and Daniel had brought her with him to Shushan when he had quitted Assyria, and thence to Ecbatana. In the care of the prophet's kinswomen the little maid had thriven and grown fair in the stranger's land. Her soft child's eyes had lost their wondering look and had turned very proud and dark, and the long black lashes that fringed the heavy lids drooped to her cheek when she looked down. Her features were noble and almost straight in outline, but in the slight bend, at the beginning of the nose, in the wide curved nostrils, the strong full lips, and in the pale olive skin, where the blood ebbed and flowed so generously, the signs of the Jewish race were all present and unmistakable.
Nehushta, the high-born lady of Judah, was a princess in every movement, in every action, in every word she uttered. The turn of her proud head was sovereign in its expression of approval or contempt, and Zoroaster himself bowed to the simple gesture of her hand as obediently as he would have done before the Great King in all his glory. Even the venerable prophet, sitting in his lofty tower high above the city and the fortress, absorbed in the contemplation of that other life which was so very near to him, smiled tenderly and stretched out his old hands to greet Nehushta when she mounted to his chamber at sunset, attended by her maidens and her slaves. She was the youngest of all his kinsfolk--fatherless and motherless, the last direct descendant of King Jehoiakim remaining in Media, and the aged prophet and governor cherished her and loved her for her royalty, as well as for her beauty and her kinship to himself. Assyrian in his education, Persian in his adherence to the conquering dynasty and in his long and faithful service of the Persians, Daniel was yet in his heart, as in his belief, a true son of Judah; proud of his race and tender of its young branches, as though he were himself the father of his country and the king of his people.
The last red glow of the departed day faded and sank above the black Zagros mountains to westward. The opposite sky was cold and gray, and all the green plain turned to a dull soft hue as the twilight crept over it, ever darker and more misty. In the gardens of the palace the birds in thousands sang together in chorus, as only Eastern birds do sing at sunrise and at nightfall, and their voices sounded like one strong, sweet, high chord, unbroken and drawn out.
Nehushta wandered in the broad paths alone. The dry warm air of the summer's evening had no chill in it, and though a fine woven mantle of purple from Srinagur hung loosely from her shoulders, she needed not to draw it about her. The delicate folds of her upper tunic fell closely around her to her knees, and were gathered at the waist by a magnificent belt of wrought gold and pearls; the long sleeves, drawn in at the wrist by clasps of pearls, almost covered her slender hands; and as she walked her delicate feet moved daintily in rich embroidered sandals with high golden heels, below the folds of the wide trousers of white and gold embroidery, gathered in at the ankle. Upon her head the stiff linen tiara of spotless white sat proudly as a royal crown, the folds of it held by a single pearl of price, and from beneath it her magnificent hair rolled down below her waist in dark smooth waves.
There was a terrace that looked eastward from the gardens. Thither Nehushta bent her steps, slowly, as though in deep thought, and when she reached the smooth marble balustrade, she leaned over it and let her dark eyes rest on the quiet landscape. The peace of the evening descended upon her; the birds of the day ceased singing with the growing darkness; and slowly, out of the plain, the yellow moon soared up and touched the river and the meadows with mystic light; while far off, in the rose-thickets of the gardens, the first notes of a single nightingale floated upon the scented breeze, swelling and trilling, quivering and falling again, in a glory of angelic song. The faint air fanned her cheek, the odours of the box and the myrtle and the roses intoxicated her senses, and as the splendid shield of the rising moon cast its broad light into her dreaming eyes, her heart overflowed, and Nehushta the princess lifted up her voice and sang an ancient song of love, in the tongue of her people, to a soft minor melody, that sounded like a sigh from the southern desert.
"Come unto me, my beloved, in the warmth of the darkness, come-- Rise, and hasten thy footsteps, to be with me at night-time, come!
"I wait in the darkness for him, and the sand of the desert whirling Is blown at the door of my tent which is open toward the desert.
"My ear in the darkness listeth for the sound of his coming nearer, Mine eyes watch for him and rest not, for I would not he found me sleeping.
"For when my beloved cometh, he is like the beam of the morning; Ev'n as the dawn in a strange land to the sight of a man journeying.
"Yea, when my beloved cometh, as dew that descendeth from heaven, No man can hear when it falleth, but as rain it refresheth all things.
"In his hand bringeth he lilies, in his right hand are many flowers, Roses hath he on his forehead, he is crowned with roses from Shinar.
"The night-winds make sweet songs for him, even in the darkness soft music; Whithersoever he goeth, there his sweetness goeth before him."
[Footnote 2: "Thou art to me as the beam of the east rising in a strange land."--Ossian.]
Her young voice died away in a soft murmuring cadence, and the nightingale alone poured out her heartful of lore to the ancient moon. But as Nehushta rested immovable by the marble balustrade of the terrace, there was a rustle among the myrtles and a quick step on the pavement. The dark maiden started at the sound, and a happy smile parted her lips. But she did not turn to look; only her hand stole out behind her on the marble where she knew her lover's would meet it. There was in the movement all the certainty of conquest and yet all the tenderness of love. The Persian trod quickly and laid his hand on hers, and bent to her, trying to meet her eyes: for one moment still she gazed out straight before her, then turned and faced him suddenly, as though she had withheld her welcome as long as she could and then given it all at once.
"I did not call you," she said, covering him with her eyes in the moonlight, but making as though she would withdraw herself a little from him, as he drew her with his hand, and with his arm, and with his eyes.
"And yet I heard you call me, my beloved," answered Zoroaster. "I heard your voice singing very sweet things in your own language--and so I came, for you did call me."
"But did you pride yourself it was for you?" laughed Nehushta. "I sang of the desert, and of tents, and of whirling sand--there is none of these things here."
"You said that your beloved brought roses in his hand--and so I do. I will crown you with them. May I? No--I shall spoil your head-dress. Take them and do as you will with them."
"I will take them--and--I always do as I will."
"Then will to take the giver also," answered Zoroaster, letting his arm steal about her, as he half sat upon the balustrade. Nehushta looked at him again, for he was good to see, and perhaps she loved his straight calm features the better in that his face was fair, and not dark like hers.
"Methinks I have taken the giver already," she answered.
"Not yet--not all," said Zoroaster in a low voice, and a shadow of sadness crossed his noble face that looked white in the moonlight. Nehushta sighed softly and presently she laid her cheek upon his shoulder where the folding of his purple mantle made a pillow between her face and the polished golden scales of his breastplate.
"I have strange news to tell you, beloved," said Zoroaster presently. Nehushta started and looked up, for his voice was sad. "Nay, fear not!" he continued, "there is no harm in it, I trust; but there are great changes in the kingdom, and there will be greater changes yet. The seven princes have slain Smerdis in Shushan, and Darius is chosen king, the son of Gushtasp, whom the Greeks call Hystaspes."
"He who came hither last year?" asked Nehushta quickly. "He is not fair, this new king."
"Not fair," replied the Persian, "but a brave man and a good. He has, moreover, sent for me to go to Shushan--"
"For you!" cried Nehushta, suddenly laying her two hands on Zoroaster's shoulders and gazing into his eyes. His face was to the moonlight, while hers was in the dark, and she could see every shade of expression. He smiled. "You laugh at me!" she cried indignantly. "You mock me--you are going away and you are glad!"
She would have turned away from him, but he held her two hands.
"Not alone," he answered. "The Great King has sent an order that I shall bring to Shushan the kinsfolk of Jehoiakim, saving only Daniel, our master, for he is so old that he cannot perform the journey. The king would honour the royal seed of Judah, and to that end he sends for you, most noble and most beloved princess."
Nehushta was silent and thoughtful; her hand slipped from Zoroaster's grasp, and her eyes looked dreamily out at the river, on which the beams of the now fully-risen moon glanced, as on the scales of a silver serpent.
"Are you glad, my beloved?" asked Zoroaster. He stood with his back to the balustrade, leaning on one elbow, and his right hand played carelessly with the heavy gold tassels of his cloak. He had come up from the fortress in his armour, as he was, to bring the news to Nehushta and to Daniel; his gilded harness was on his back, half-hidden by the ample purple cloak, his sword was by his side, and on his head he wore the pointed helmet, richly inlaid with gold, bearing in front the winged wheel which the sovereigns of the Persian empire had assumed after the conquest of Assyria. His very tall and graceful body seemed planned to combine the greatest possible strength with the most surpassing activity, and in his whole presence there breathed the consciousness of ready and elastic power, the graceful elasticity of a steel bow always bent, the inexpressible ease of motion and the matchless swiftness that men had when the world was young--that wholeness of harmonious proportion which alone makes rest graceful, and the inactivity of idleness itself like a mode of perfect motion. As they stood there together, the princess of Judah and the noble Persian, they were wholly beautiful and yet wholly contrasted--the Semite and the Aryan, the dark race of the south, on which the hot air of the desert had breathed for generations in the bondage of Egypt, and left its warm sign-manual of southern sunshine,--and the fair man of the people whose faces were already set northwards, on whom the north breathed already its icy fairness, and magnificent coldness of steely strength.
"Are you glad, my beloved?" asked Zoroaster again, looking up and laying his right hand on the princess's arm. She had given no answer to his question, but only gazed dreamily out over the river.
She seemed about to speak, then paused again, then hesitated and answered his question by another.
"Zoroaster--you love me," again she paused, and, as he passionately seized her hands and pressed his lips to them, she said softly, turning her head away, "What is love?"
He, too, waited one moment before he answered, and, standing to his lordly height, took her head between his hands and pressed it to his breast; then, with one arm around her, he stood looking eastward and spoke:
"Listen, my beloved, and I, who love you, will tell you what love is. In the far-off dawn of the soul-life, in the ethereal distance of the outer firmament, in the mist of the star-dust, our spirits were quickened with the spirit of God, and found one another, and met. Before earth was for us, we were one; before time was for us, we were one--even as we shall be one when there is no time for us any more. Then Ahura Mazda, the all-wise God, took our two souls from among the stars, and set them in the earth, clothed for a time with mortal bodies. But we know each other, that we were together from the first, although these earthly things obscure our immortal vision, and we see each other less clearly. Yet is our love none the less--rather, it seems every day greater, for our bodies can feel joy and sorrow, even as our spirits do; so that I am able to suffer for you, in which I rejoice, and I would that I might be chosen to lay down my life for you, that you might know how I love you; for often you doubt me, and sometimes you doubt yourself. There should be no doubt in love. Love is from the first, and will be to the end, and beyond the end; love is so eternal, so great, so whole, that this mortal life of ours is but as a tiny instant, a moment of pausing in our journey from one star-world to another along the endless paths of heavenly glory we shall tread, together--it is nothing, this worldly life of ours. Before it shall seem long that we have loved, this earth we stand on, these things we touch, these bodies of ours that we think so strong and fair, will be forgotten and dissolved into their elements in the trackless and undiscoverable waste of past mortality, while we ourselves are ever young, and ever fair, and for ever living in our immortal love."
Nehushta looked up wonderingly into her lover's eyes, then let her head rest on his shoulder. The high daring of his thoughts seemed ever trying to scale heaven itself, seeking to draw her to some wondrous region of mystic beauty and strange spirit life. She was awed for a moment, then she, too, spoke in her own fashion.
"I love life," she said, "I love you because you live, not because you are a spirit chained and tied down for a time. I love this soft sweet earth, the dawn of it, and the twilight of it; I love the sun in his rising and in his setting; I love the moon in her fulness and in her waning; I love the smell of the box and of the myrtle, of the roses and of the violets; I love the glorious light of day, the splendour of heat and greenness, the song of the birds of the air and the song of the labourer in the field, the hum of the locust, and the soft buzzing of the bee; I love the brightness of gold and the richness of fine purple, the tramp of your splendid guards and the ring of their trumpets clanging in the fresh morning, as they march through the marble courts of the palace. I love the gloom of night for its softness, the song of the nightingale in the ivory moonlight, the rustle of the breeze in the dark rose-thickets, and the odour of the sleeping flowers in my gardens; I love even the cry of the owl from the prophet's tower, and the soft thick sound of the bat's wings, as he flits past the netting of my window. I love it all, for the whole earth is rich and young and good to touch, and most sweet to live in. And I love you because you are more beautiful than other men, fairer and stronger and braver, and because you love me, and will let no other love me but yourself, if you were to die for it. Ah, my beloved, I would that I had all the sweet voices of the earth, all the tuneful tongues of the air, to tell you how I love you!"
"There is no lack of sweetness, nor of eloquence, my princess," said Zoroaster; "there is no need of any voice sweeter than yours, nor of any tongue more tuneful. You love in your way, I in mine; the two together must surely be the perfect whole. Is it not so? Nay--seal the deed once again--and again--so! 'Love is stronger than death,' says your preacher."
"'And jealousy is as cruel as the grave,' he says, too," added Nehushta, her eyes flashing fire as her lips met his. "You must never make me jealous, Zoroaster, never, never! I would be so cruel--you cannot dream how cruel I would be!"
Zoroaster laughed under his silken beard, a deep, joyous, ringing laugh that startled the moonlit stillness.
"By Nabon and Bel, there is small cause for your jealousy here," he said.
"Swear not by your false gods!" laughed Nehushta. "You know not how little it would need to rouse me."
"I will not give you that little," answered the Persian. "And as for the false gods, they are well enough for a man to swear by in these days. But I will swear by any one you command me, or by anything!"
"Swear not, or you will say again that the oath has need of sealing," replied Nehushta, drawing her mantle around her, so as to cover half her face. "Tell me, when are we to begin our journey? We have talked much and have said little, as it ever is. Shall we go at once, or are we to wait for another order? Is Darius safe upon the throne? Who is to be chiefest at the court--one of the seven princes, I suppose, or his old father? Come, do you know anything of all these changes? Why have you never told me what was going to happen--you who are high in power and know everything?"
"Your questions flock upon me like doves to a maiden who feeds them from her hand," said Zoroaster, with a smile, "and I know not which shall be fed first. As for the king, I know that he will be great, and will hold securely the throne, for he has already the love of the people from the Western sea to the wild Eastern mountains. But it seemed as though the seven princes would have divided the empire amongst them, until this news came. I think he will more likely take one of your people for his close friend than trust to the princes. As for our journey, we must depart betimes, or the king will have gone before us from Shushan to Stakhar in the south, where they say he will build himself a royal dwelling and stay in the coming winter time. Prepare yourself for the journey, therefore, my princess, lest anything be forgotten and you should be deprived of what you need for any time."
"I am never deprived of what I need," said Nehushta, half in pride and half in jest.
"Nor I, when I am with my beloved!" answered the Persian. "And now the moon is high, and I must bear this news to our master, the prophet."
"So soon?" said Nehushta reproachfully, and she turned her head away.
"I would there were no partings, my beloved, even for the space of an hour," answered Zoroaster, tenderly drawing her to him; but she resisted a little and would not look at him.
"Farewell now--good-night, my princess--light of my soul;" he kissed her dark cheek passionately. "Good-night!"
He trod swiftly across the terrace.
"Zoroaster! prince!" Nehushta called aloud, but without turning. He came back. She threw her arms about his neck and kissed him almost desperately. Then she pushed him gently away from her.
"Go--my love--only that," she murmured, and he left her standing by the marble balustrade, while the yellow moon turned slowly pale as she rose in the heavens, and the song of the lorn nightingale re-echoed in the still night, from the gardens to the towers, in long sweet cries of burning love, and soft, complaining, silvery notes of mingled sorrow and joy.
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