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Thus died Daniel, and for seven days the women sat apart upon the ground and mourned him, while the men embalmed his body and made it ready for burial. They wrapped him in much fine linen and poured out very precious spices and ointments from the store-houses of the palaces. Round about his body they burned frankincense and myrrh and amber, and the gums of the Indian benzoe and of the Persian fir, and great candles of pure wax; for all the seven days the mourners from the city made a great mourning, ceasing not to sing the praises of the prophet and to cry aloud by day and night that the best and the worthiest and the greatest of all men was dead.
Thus they watched and mourned, and sang his great deeds. And in the lower chamber of the tower the women sat upon the floor, with Nehushta in their midst, and sorrowed greatly, fasting and mourning in raiment of sackcloth, and strewing ashes upon the floor and upon themselves. Nehushta's face grew thin and very pale and her lips white in that time, and she let her heavy hair hang neglected about her. Many of the men shaved their heads and went barefooted, and the fortress and the palaces were filled with the sound of weeping and grief. The Hebrews who were there mourned their chief, and the two Levites sat beside the dead man and read long chapters from their scriptures. The Medes mourned their great and just governor, under the Assyrian name of Belteshazzar, given first to Daniel by Nebuchadnezzar; and from all the town the noise of their weeping and mourning came up, like the mighty groan of a nation, to the ears of those that dwelt in the fortress and the palace.
On the eighth day they buried him, with pomp and state, in a tomb in the garden which they had built during the week of mourning. The two Levites and a young Hebrew and Zoroaster himself, clad in sackcloth and barefooted, raised up the prophet's body upon a bier and bore him upon their shoulders down the broad staircase of the tower and out into the garden to his tomb. The mourners went before, many hundreds of Median women with dishevelled hair, rending their dresses of sackcloth and scattering ashes upon their path and upon their heads, crying aloud in wild voices of grief and piercing the air with their screams, till they came to the tomb and stood round about it while the four men laid their master in his great coffin of black marble beneath the pines and the rhododendrons. And the pipers followed after, making shrill and dreadful music that sounded as though some supernatural beings added their voices to the universal wail of woe. And on either side of the body walked the women, the prophet's kinsfolk; but Nehushta walked by Zoroaster, and ever and anon, as the funeral procession wound through the myrtle walks of the deep gardens, her dark and heavy eyes stole a glance sidelong at her strong fair lover. His face was white as death and set sternly before him, and his dishevelled hair and golden beard flowed wildly over the rough coarseness of his long sackcloth garments. But his step never faltered, though he walked barefooted upon the hard gravel, and from the upper chamber of the tower whence they bore the corpse to the very moment when they laid it in the tomb, his face never changed, neither looked he to the right nor to the left. And then, at last, when they had lowered their beloved master with linen bands to his last resting-place, and the women came near with boxes of nard and ambergris and precious ointments, Zoroaster looked long and fixedly at the swathed head, and the tears rolled down his cheeks and dropped upon his beard and upon the marble of the coffin; till at last he turned in silence, and went away through the multitude that parted before him, as pale as the dead and answering no man's greeting, nor even glancing at Nehushta who had stood at his elbow. And he went away and hid himself for the rest of that day.
But in the evening, when the sun was gone down, he came and stood upon the terrace in the darkness, for there was no moon. He wore again his arms, and his purple cloak was about him, for he had his duty to perform in visiting the fortress. The starlight glimmered faintly on his polished helmet and duskily made visible his marble features and his beard. He stood with his back to the pillars of the balustrade, looking towards the myrtles of the garden, for he knew that Nehushta would come to the wonted tryst. He waited long, but at last he heard a step upon the gravel path and the rustle of the myrtles, and presently in the faint light he could see the white skirt of her garment beneath the dark mantle moving swiftly towards him. He sprang forward to meet her and would have taken her in his arms, but she put him back and looked away from him while she walked slowly to the front of the terrace. Even in the gloom of the starlight Zoroaster could see that something had offended her, and a cold weight seemed to fall upon his breast and chilled the rising words of loving greeting.
Zoroaster followed her and laid his hand upon her shoulder. Unresponsive, she allowed it to remain there.
"My beloved," he said at last, trying in vain to look into her averted face, "have you no word for me to-night?" Still she answered nothing. "Has your sorrow made you forget our love?" he murmured close to her ear. She started back from him a little and looked at him. Even in the dusk he could see her eyes flash as she answered:
"Had not your own sorrow so utterly got the mastery over you to-day that you even refused to look at me?" she asked. "In all that long hour when we were so near together, did you give me one glance? You had forgotten me in the extremity of your grief!" she cried, scornfully. "And now that the first torrent of your tears has dwindled to a little stream, you have time to remember me! I thank my lord for the notice he deigns to give his handmaiden, but--I need it not. Well--why are you here?"
Zoroaster stood up to his height and folded his arms deliberately, facing Nehushta, and he spoke calmly, though there was in his voice the dulness of a great and sudden pain. He knew men well enough, but he knew little of women.
"There is a time to be sorrowful and a time for joy," he said. "There is a time for weeping and a time for the glances of love. I did as I did, because when a man has a great grief for one dead and when he desires to show his sorrow in doing honour to one who has been as a father to him, it is not meet that other thoughts should be in his mind; not even those thoughts which are most dear to him and nearest to his heart. Therefore I looked not at you when we were burying our master, and though I love you and in my heart look ever on your face, yet to-day my eyes were turned from you and I saw you not. Wherefore are you angry with me?"
"I am not angry," said Nehushta, "but think you love me little that you turn from me so easily." She looked down, and her face was quite hidden in the dark shadow. Then Zoroaster put his arm about her neck and drew her to him, and, though she resisted a little, in a moment her head rested on his breast. Then she struggled again.
"Nay, let me go, for you do not love me!" she said, half in a whisper. But he held her close.
"Nay, but you shall not go, for I do love you," he answered tenderly.
"Shall not?" cried she, turning in his arms, half fiercely; then her voice sank and thrilled softly. "Say that I will not," she murmured, and her arms went round him and pressed him passionately to her. "Oh, my beloved, why do you ever seem so cold? so cold--when I so love you?"
"I am not cold," he said fondly, "and I love you beyond all power of words to tell. Said we not that you had your way and I mine? Who shall tell us which is the sweeter music when both unite in so grand a harmony? Only doubt not, for doubting is as the drop that falls from the eaves upon the marble corner-stone, and, by ever falling, wears furrows in the stone that the whole ocean could not soften."
"I will not doubt any more," said Nehushta suddenly, "only--can you not love me a little sometimes in the way I do you? It is so sweet,--my way of loving."
"Indeed I will try, for it is very sweet," answered Zoroaster, and, bending down, he kissed her lips. Far off from the tower the melancholy cry of an owl echoed sadly across the gardens, and a cool damp breeze sprang up suddenly, from the east. Nehushta shuddered slightly, and drew her cloak about her.
"Let us walk upon the terrace," she said, "it is cold to-night--is not this the last night here?"
"Yes; to-morrow we must go hence upon our journey. This is the last night."
Nehushta drew closer to her lover as they paced the terrace together, and each wound one arm about the other. For some minutes they walked in silence, each perhaps recalling the many meetings upon that very terrace since the first time their lips met in love under the ivory moonlight of the month Tammuz, more than a year ago. At last Nehushta spoke.
"Know you this new king?" she asked. "I saw him but for a few moments last year. He was a young prince, but he is not fair."
"A young prince with an old man's head upon his shoulders," answered Zoroaster. "He is a year younger than I--but I would not have his battles to fight; nor, if I had, would I have taken Atossa to be my wife."
"Atossa?" repeated Nehushta.
"Yes. The king has already married her--she was the wife of Cambyses, and also of the false Smerdis, the Magian, whom Darius has slain."
"Is she fair? Have I not seen her?" asked Nehushta quickly.
"Indeed, you must have seen her at the court in Shushan, before we came to Ecbatana. She was just married to Cambyses then, but he regarded her little, for he was ever oppressed with wine and feasting. But you were a child then, and were mostly with the women of your house, and you may not have seen her."
"Tell me--had she not blue eyes and yellow hair? Had she not a cruel face--very cold?"
"Aye, it may be that she had a hard look. I remember that her eyes were blue. She was very unhappy; therefore she helped the Magian. It was not she that betrayed him."
"You pitied her even then, did you not?" asked Nehushta.
"Yes--she deserved pity."
"She will have her revenge now. A woman with a face like hers loves revenge."
"Then she will deserve pity no longer," said Zoroaster, with a slight laugh.
"I hate her!" said the princess, between her teeth.
"Hate her? How can you hate a woman you have never more than seen, and she has done you no evil in the world?"
"I am sure I shall hate her," answered Nehushta. "She is not at all beautiful--only cold and white and cruel. How could the Great King be so foolish as to marry her?"
"May he live for ever! He marries whom he pleases. But I pray you, do not begin by hating the queen overmuch."
"Why not? What have I to gain from the queen?" asked the princess. "Am I not of royal blood as well as she?"
"That is true," returned Zoroaster. "Nevertheless there is a prudence for princesses as well as for other people."
"I would not be afraid of the Great King himself with you beside me," said Nehushta proudly. "But I will be prudent to please you. Only--I am sure I shall hate her."
Zoroaster smiled to himself in the dusk, but he would not have had the princess see he was amused.
"It shall be as you please," he said; "we shall soon know how it will end, for we must begin our journey to-morrow."
"It will need three weeks, will it not?" asked Nehushta.
"Yes--it is at least one hundred and fifty farsangs. It would weary you to travel more than seven or eight farsangs in a day's journey--indeed, that is a long distance for any one."
"We shall always be together, shall we not?" asked the princess.
"I will ride beside your litter, my beloved," said Zoroaster. "But it will be very tedious for you, and you will often be tired. The country is very wild in some parts, and we must trust to what we can take with us for our comfort. Do not spare the mules, therefore, but take everything you need."
"Besides, we may not return," said Nehushta thoughtfully.
Her companion was silent. "Do you think we shall ever come back?" she asked presently.
"I have dreamed of coming back," answered Zoroaster; "but I fear it is to be even as you say."
"Why say you that you fear it! Is it not better to live at the court than here in this distant fortress, so shut off from the world that we might almost as well be among the Scythians? Oh, I long for the palace at Shushan! I am sure it will seem tenfold more beautiful now than it did when I was a child."
Zoroaster sighed. In his heart he knew there was to be no returning to Media, and yet he had dreamed of marrying the princess and being made governor of the province, and bringing his wife home to this beautiful land to live out a long life of quiet happiness. But he knew it was not to be; and though he tried hard to shake off the impression, he felt in his inmost self that the words of the dying prophet foretold truly what would happen to him. Only he hoped that there was an escape, and the passion in his heart scorned the idea that in loving Nehushta he was being led astray, or made to abandon the right path.
The cold breeze blew steadily from the east, with a chill dampness in it, sighing wearily among the trees. The summer was not yet wholly come, and the after-breath of the winter still made itself felt from time to time. The lovers parted, taking leave of the spot they loved so well,--Zoroaster with a heavy foreboding of evil to come; Nehushta with a great longing for the morrow, a mad desire to be on the way to Shushan.
Something in her way of speaking had given Zoroaster a sense of pain. Her interest in the court and in the Great King, the strange capricious hatred that seemed already forming in her breast against Atossa, the evident desire she betrayed to take part in the brilliant life of the capital,--indeed, her whole manner troubled him. It seemed so unaccountable that she should be angry with him for his conduct at the burial of the prophet, that he almost thought she had wished to take advantage of a trifle for the sake of annoying him. He felt that doubt which never comes so suddenly and wounds so keenly as when a man feels the most certain of his position and of himself.
He retired to his apartment in the palace with a burden of unhappiness and evil presentiment that was new to him. It was very different from the sincere sorrow he had felt and still suffered for the death of his master and friend. That misfortune had not affected him as regarded Nehushta. But now he had been separated from her during all the week by the exigencies of the funeral ceremonies, and he had looked forward to meeting her this evening as to a great joy after so much mourning, and he was disappointed. She had affected to be offended with him, yet his reason told him that he had acted naturally and rightly. Could he, the bearer of the prophet's body, the captain of all the fortress, the man of all others upon whom all eyes were turned, have exchanged love glances or spoken soft words to the princess by his side at such a time? It was absurd; she had no right to expect such a thing.
However, he reflected that a new kind of life was to begin on the morrow. For the best part of a month he would ride by her litter all day long, and sit at her table at noonday and evening; he would watch over her and take care of her, and see that her slightest wants were instantly supplied; a thousand incidents would occur whereby he might re-establish all the loving intimacy which seemed to have been so unexpectedly shaken. And so, consoling himself with the hopes of the future, and striving to overlook the present, he fell asleep, wearied with the fatigues and sorrows of the day.
But Nehushta lay all night upon her silken cushions, and watched the flickering little lamp and the strange shadows it cast among the rich, painted carvings of the ceiling. She slept little, but waking she dreamed of the gold and the glitter of Shushan, of the magnificence of the young king, and of the brilliant hard-featured beauty of Atossa, whom she already hated or had determined to hate. The king interested her most. She tried to recall his features and manner as he had appeared when he tarried one night in the fortress a year previous. She remembered a black-browed man in the prime of youth, with heavy brows and an eagle nose; his young beard growing black and square about his strong dark features, which would have seemed coarse saving for his bright eyes that looked every man fearlessly in the face. A short man he seemed in her memory, square built and powerful as a bloodhound, of quick and decisive speech, expecting to be understood before he had half spoken his thoughts; a man, she fancied, who must be untiring and violent of temper, inflexible and brave in the execution of his purpose--a strong contrast outwardly to her tall and graceful lover. Zoroaster's faultless beauty was a constant delight to her eyes; his soft deep voice sounded voluptuously passionate when he spoke to herself, coldly and deliberately dominating when addressing others. He moved with perfect certainty and assurance of purpose, his whole presence breathed a high and superior wisdom and untainted nobility of mind; he looked and acted like a god, like a being from another world, not subject to mortal passions, nor to the temptations of common mankind. She gloried in his perfection and in the secret knowledge that to her alone he was a man simply and utterly dominated by love. As she thought of him she grew proud and happy in the idea that such a man should be her lover, and she reproached herself for doubting his devotion that evening. After all, she had only complained that he had neglected her--as he had really done, she added. She wondered in her heart whether other men would have done the same in his place, or whether this power of coldly disregarding her presence when he was occupied with a serious matter were not due to a real and unconquerable hardness in his nature.
But as she lay there, her dark hair streaming over the yellow silk of her pillows, her mind strayed from her lover to the life before her, and the picture rose quickly in her imagination. She even took up the silver mirror that lay beside her and looked at herself by the dim light of the little lamp, and said to herself that she was beautiful, and that many in Shushan would do her homage. She was glad that Atossa was so fair--it would be a better contrast for her own dark southern beauty.
Towards morning she slept, and dreamed of the grand figure of the prophet, as she had seen him stretched upon his death-bed in the upper chamber of the tower; she thought the dead man stirred and opened his glazed eyes and pointed at her with his bony fingers, and spoke words of anger and reproach. Then she woke with a short cry in her terror, and the light of the dawn shone gray and clear through the doorway of the corridor at the end of her room, where two of her handmaids slept across the threshold, their white cloaks drawn over their heads against the chill air of the night.
Then the trumpets rang out in long-drawn clanging rhythm through the morning air, and Nehushta heard the trampling of the beasts that were being got ready for the journey, in the court without, and the cries of the drivers and of the serving-men. She rose quickly from her bed--a lithe white-clad figure in the dawn light--and pushed the heavy curtains aside and looked out through the lattice; and she forgot her evil dream, for her heart leaped again at the thought that she should no more be shut up in Ecbatana, and that before another month was over she would be in Shushan, in the palace, where she longed to be.
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