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The sun was almost setting, and his light was already turning to a golden glow upon the vast plain of Shushan, as the caravan of travellers halted for the last time. A few stades away the two mounds rose above the royal city like two tables out of the flat country; the lower one surmounted by the marble columns, the towers and turrets and gleaming architraves of the palace; and in front, upon the right, the higher elevation crowned by the dark and massive citadel of frowning walls and battlements. The place chosen for the halt was the point where the road from Nineveh, into which they had turned when about half-way from Ecbatana, joined the broad road from Babylon, near to the bridge. For some time they had followed the quiet stream of the Choaspes, and, looking across it, had watched how the fortress seemed to come forward and overhang the river, while the mound of the palace fell away to the background. The city itself was, of course, completely hidden from their view by the steep mounds, that looked as inaccessible as though they had been built of solid masonry.
Everything in the plain was green. Stade upon stade, and farsang upon farsang, the ploughed furrows stretched away to the west and south; the corn standing already green and high, and the fig-trees putting out their broad green leaves. Here and there in the level expanse of country the rays of the declining sun were reflected from the whitewashed walls of a farmhouse; or in the farther distance lingered upon the burnt-brick buildings of an outlying village. Beyond the river, in the broad meadow beneath the turret-clad mound, half-naked, sunburnt boys drove home the small humped cows to the milking, scaring away, as they went, the troops of white horses that pastured in the same field, clapping their hands and crying out at the little black foals that ran and frisked by the side of their white dams. Here and there a broad-shouldered, bearded fisherman angled in the stream, or flung out a brown casting-net upon the placid waters, drawing it slowly back to the bank, with eyes intent upon the moving cords.
The caravan halted on the turf by the side of the dusty road; the mounted guards, threescore stalwart riders from the Median plains, fell back to make room for the travellers, and, springing to the ground, set about picketing and watering their horses--their brazen armour and scarlet and blue mantles blazing in a mass of rich colour in the evening sun; while their wild white horses, untired by the day's march, plunged and snorted, and shook themselves, and bit each other in play by mane and tail, in the delight of being at least half free.
Zoroaster himself--his purple mantle somewhat whitened with the dust, and his fair face a little browned by the three weeks' journey--threw the bridle of his horse to a soldier and ran quickly forward. A magnificent litter, closed all around with a gilded lattice, and roofed with three awnings of white linen, one upon the other, as a protection against the sun, was being carefully unyoked from the mules that had borne it. Tall Ethiopian slaves lifted it, and carried it to the greenest spot of the turf by the softly flowing river; and Zoroaster himself pushed back the lattice and spread a rich carpet before it. Nehushta took his proffered hand and stepped lightly out, and stood beside him in the red light. She was veiled, and her purple cloak fell in long folds to her feet, and she stood motionless, with her back to the city, looking towards the setting sun.
"Why do we stop here?" she asked suddenly.
"The Great King, may he live for ever, is said not to be in the city," answered Zoroaster, "and it would ill become us to enter the palace before him." He spoke aloud in the Median language that the slaves might hear him; then he added in Hebrew and in a lower voice, "It would be scarcely wise, or safe, to enter Shushan when the king is away. Who can tell what may have happened there in these days? Babylon has rebelled; the empire is far from settled. All Persia may be on the very point of a revolt."
"A fitting time indeed for our journey--for me and my women to be travelling abroad with a score of horsemen for a guard! Why did you bring me here? How long are we to remain encamped by the roadside, waiting the pleasure of the populace to let us in, or the convenience of this new king to return?"
Nehushta turned upon her companion as she spoke, and there was a ring of mingled scorn and disappointment in her voice. Her dark eyes stated coldly at Zoroaster from the straight opening between her veils, and before he could answer, she turned her back upon him and moved a few steps away, gazing out at the setting sun across the fertile meadows. The warrior stood still, and a dark flush overspread his face. Then he turned pale, but whatever were the words that rose to his lips, he did not speak them, but occupied himself with superintending the pitching of the women's tents. The other litters were brought, and set down with their occupants; the long file of camels, some laden with baggage and provisions, some bearing female slaves, kneeled down to be unloaded upon the grass, anxiously craning their long necks the while in the direction of the stream; the tent-pitchers set to work; and at the last another score of horsemen, who had formed the rear-guard of the caravan, cantered up and joined their companions who had already dismounted. With the rapid skill of long practice, all did their share, and in a few minutes all the immense paraphernalia of a Persian encampment were spread out and disposed in place for the night. Contrary to the usual habit Zoroaster had not permitted the tent-pitchers and other slaves to pass on while he and his charges made their noonday halt; for he feared some uprising in the neighbourhood of the city in the absence of the king, and he wished to keep his whole company together as a measure of safety, even at the sacrifice of Nehushta's convenience.
She herself still stood apart, and haughtily turned away from her serving-women, giving them no answer when they saluted her and offered her cushions and cooling drinks. She drew her cloak more closely about her and tightened her veil upon her face. She was weary, disappointed, almost angry. For days she had dreamed of the reception she would have at the palace, of the king and of the court; of the luxury of rest after her long journey, and of the thousand diversions and excitements she would find in revisiting the scenes of her childhood. It was no small disappointment to find herself condemned to another night in camp; and her first impulse was to blame Zoroaster.
In spite of her love for him, her strong and dominating temper often chafed at his calmness, and resented the resolute superiority of his intelligence; and then, being conscious that her own dignity suffered by the storms of her temper, she was even more angry than before, with herself, with him, with every one. But Zoroaster was as impassive as marble, saving that now and then his brow flushed, and paled quickly; and his words, if he spoke at all, had a chilled icy ring in them. Sooner or later, Nehushta's passionate temper cooled, and she found him the same as ever, devoted and gentle and loving; then her heart went out to him anew, and all her being was filled with the love of him, even to overflowing.
She had been disappointed now, and would speak to no one. She moved still farther from the crowd of slaves and tent-pitchers, followed at a respectful distance by her handmaidens, who whispered together as they went; and again she stood still and looked westward.
As the sun neared the horizon, his low rays caught upon a raising cloud of dust, small and distant as the smoke of a fire, in the plain towards Babylon, but whirling quickly upwards. Nehushta's eye rested on the far-off point, and she raised one hand to shade her sight. She remembered how, when she was a girl, she had watched the line of that very road from the palace above, and had seen a cloud of dust arise out of a mere speck, as a body of horsemen galloped into view. There was no mistaking what it was. A troop of horse were coming--perhaps the king himself. Instinctively she turned and looked for Zoroaster, and started, as she saw him standing at a little distance from her, with folded arms, his eyes bent on the horizon. She moved towards him in sudden excitement.
"What is it?" she asked in low tones.
"It is the Great King--may he live for ever!" answered Zoroaster. "None but he would ride so fast along the royal road."
For a moment they stood side by side, watching the dust cloud; and as they stood, Nehushta's hand stole out from her cloak and touched the warrior's arm, softly, with a trembling of the fingers, as though she timidly sought something she would not ask for. Zoroaster turned his head and saw that her eyes were moistened with tears; he understood, but he would not take her hand, for there were many slaves near, besides Nehushta's kinsfolk, and he would not have had them see; but he looked on her tenderly, and on a sudden, his eyes grew less sad, and the light returned in them.
"My beloved!" he said softly.
"I was wrong, Zoroaster--forgive me," she murmured. She suffered him to lead her to her tent, which was already pitched; and he left her there, sitting at the door and watching his movements, while he called together his men and drew them up in a compact rank by the roadside, to be ready to salute the king.
Nearer and nearer came the cloud; and the red glow turned to purple and the sun went out of sight; and still it came nearer, that whirling cloud-canopy of fine powdered dust, rising to right and left of the road in vast round puffs, and hanging overhead like the smoke from some great moving fire. Then, from beneath it, there seemed to come a distant roar like thunder, rising and falling on the silent air, but rising ever louder; and a dark gleam of polished bronze, with something more purple than the purple sunset, took shape slowly; then with the low roar of sound, came now and then, and then more often, the clank of harness and arms; till at last, the whole stamping, rushing, clanging crowd of galloping horsemen seemed to emerge suddenly from the dust in a thundering charge, the very earth shaking beneath their weight, and the whole air vibrating to the tremendous shock of pounding hoofs and the din of clashing brass.
A few lengths before the serried ranks rode one man alone,--a square figure, wrapped in a cloak of deeper and richer purple than any worn by the ordinary nobles, sitting like a rock upon a great white horse. As he came up, Zoroaster and his fourscore men threw up their hands.
"Hail, king of kings! Hail, and live for ever!" they cried, and as one man, they prostrated themselves upon their faces on the grass by the roadside.
Darius drew rein suddenly, bringing his steed from his full gallop to his haunches in an instant. After him the rushing riders threw up their right hands as a signal to those behind; and with a deafening concussion, as of the ocean breaking at once against a wall of rock, those matchless Persian horsemen halted in a body in the space of a few yards, their steeds plunging wildly, rearing to their height and struggling on the curb; but helpless to advance against the strong hands that held them. The blossom and flower of all the Persian nobles rode there,--their purple mantles flying with the wild motion, their bronze cuirasses black in the gathering twilight, their bearded faces dark and square beneath their gilded helmets.
"I am Darius, the king of kings, on whom ye call," cried the king, whose steed now stood like a marble statue, immovable in the middle of the road. "Rise, speak and fear nothing,--unless ye speak lies."
Zoroaster rose to his feet, then bent low, and taking a few grains of dust from the roadside, touched his mouth with his hand and let the dust fall upon his forehead.
"Hail, and live for ever! I am thy servant, Zoroaster, who was captain over the fortress and treasury of Ecbatana. According to thy word I have brought the kinsfolk of Jehoiakim, king of Judah,--chief of whom is Nehushta, the princess. I heard that thou wast absent from Shushan, and here I have waited for thy coming. I also sent thee messengers to announce that Daniel, surnamed Belteshazzar, who was Satrap of Media from the time of Cambyses, is dead; and I have buried him fittingly in a new tomb in the garden of the palace of Ecbatana."
Darius, quick and impulsive in every thought and action, sprang to the ground as Zoroaster finished speaking, and coming to him, took both his hands and kissed him on both cheeks.
"What thou hast done is well done,--I know thee of old. Auramazda is with thee. He is also with me. By his grace I have slain the rebels at Babylon. They spoke lies, so I slew them. Show me Nehushta, the daughter of the kings of Judah."
"I am thy servant. The princess is at hand," answered Zoroaster; but as he spoke, he turned pale to the lips.
By this time it had grown dark, and the moon, just past the full, had not yet risen from behind the mound of the fortress. The slaves brought torches of mingled wax and fir-gum, and their black figures shone strangely in the red glare, as they pressed toward the door of Nehushta's tent, lighting the way for the king.
Darius strode quickly forward, his gilded harness clanging as he walked, the strong flaring light illuminating his bold dark features. Under the striped curtain, drawn up to form the entrance of the tent, stood Nehushta. She had thrown aside her veil and her women had quickly placed upon her head the linen tiara, where a single jewel shown like a star in the white folds. Her thick black hair fell in masses upon her shoulders, and her mantle was thrown back, displaying the grand proportions of her figure, clad in tunic and close-fitting belt. As the king came near, she kneeled and prostrated herself before him, touching her forehead to the ground, and waiting for him to speak.
He stood still a full minute and his eyes flashed fire, as he looked on her crouching figure, in very pride that so queenly a woman should be forced to kneel at his feet--but more in sudden admiration of her marvellous beauty. Then he bent down, and took her hand and raised her to her feet. She sprang up, and faced him with glowing cheeks and flashing eyes; and as she stood she was nearly as tall as he.
"I would not that a princess of thy line kneeled before me," said he; and in his voice there was a strange touch of softness. "Wilt thou let me rest here awhile before I go up to Shushan? I am weary of riding and thirsty from the road."
"Hail, king of the world! I am thy servant. Rest thee and refresh thee here," answered Nehushta, drawing back into the tent. The king beckoned to Zoroaster to follow him and went in.
Darius sat upon the carved folding-chair that stood in the midst of the tent by the main pole, and eagerly drained the huge golden goblet of Shiraz wine which Zoroaster poured for him. Then he took off his headpiece, and his thick, coarse hair fell in a mass of dark curls to his neck, like the mane of a black lion. He breathed a long breath as of relief and enjoyment of well-earned repose, and leaned back in his chair, letting his eyes rest on Nehushta's face as she stood before him looking down to the ground. Zoroaster remained on one side, holding the replenished goblet in his hand, in case the king's thirst were not assuaged by a single draught.
"Thou art fair, daughter of Jerusalem," said the king presently. "I remember thy beauty, for I saw thee in Ecbatana. I sent for thee and thy kinsfolk that I might do thee honour; and I will also fulfil my words. I will take thee to be my wife."
Darius spoke quietly, in his usual tone of absolute determination. But if the concentrated fury of a thousand storms had suddenly broken loose in the very midst of the tent, the effect could not have been more terrible on his hearers.
Nehushta's face flushed suddenly, and for a moment she trembled in every joint; then she fell on her knees, prostrate before the king's feet, all the wealth of her splendid hair falling loose about her. Darius sat still, as though watching the result of his speech. He might have sat long, but in an instant, Zoroaster sprang between the king and the kneeling woman; and the golden goblet he had held rolled across the thick carpet on the ground, while the rich red wine ran in a slow stream towards the curtains of the door. His face was livid and his eyes like coals of blue fire, his fair locks and his long golden beard caught the torchlight and shone about him like a glory, as he stood up to his grand height and faced the king. Darius never quailed nor moved; his look met Zoroaster's with fearless boldness. Zoroaster spoke first, in low accents of concentrated fury:
"Nehushta the princess is my betrothed bride. Though thou wert king of the stars as well as king of the earth, thou shalt not have her for thy wife."
Darius smiled, not scornfully, an honest smile of amusement, as he stared at the wrathful figure of the northern man before him.
"I am the king of kings," he answered. "I will marry this princess of Judah to-morrow, and thee I will crucify upon the highest turret of Shushan, because thou speakest lies when thou sayest I shall not marry her."
"Fool! tempt not thy God! Threaten not him who is stronger than thou, lest he slay thee with his hands where thou sittest." Zoroaster's voice sounded low and distinct as the knell of relentless fate, and his hand went out towards the king's throat.
Until this moment, Darius had sat in his indifferent attitude, smiling carelessly, though never taking his eye from his adversary. Brave as the bravest, he scorned to move until he was attacked, and he would have despised the thought of calling to his guards. But when Zoroaster's hand went out to seize him, he was ready. With a spring like a tiger, he flew at the strong man's throat, and sought to drag him down, striving to fasten his grip about the collar of his cuirass, but Zoroaster slipped his hand quickly under his adversary's, his sleeve went back and his long white arm ran like a fetter of steel about the king's neck, while his other hand gripped him by the middle; so they held each other like wrestlers, one arm above the shoulder and one below, and strove with all their might.
The king was short, but in his thick-set broad shoulders and knotted arms there lurked the strength of a bull and the quickness of a tiger. Zoroaster had the advantage, for his right arm was round Darius's neck, but while one might count a score, neither moved a hairbreadth, and the blue veins stood out like cords on the tall man's arm. The fiery might of the southern prince was matched against the stately strength of the fair northerner, whose face grew as white as death, while the king's brow was purple with the agony of effort. They both breathed hard between their clenched teeth, but neither uttered a word.
Nehushta had leaped to her feet in terror at the first sign of the coming strife, but she did not cry out, nor call in the slaves or guards. She stood, holding the tent-pole with one hand, and gathering her mantle to her breast with the other, gazing in absolute fascination at the fearful life and death struggle, at the unspeakable and tremendous strength so silently exerted by the two men before her.
Suddenly they moved and swayed. Darius had attempted to trip Zoroaster with one foot, but slipping on the carpet wet with wine, had been bent nearly double to the ground; then by a violent effort, he regained his footing. But the great exertion had weakened his strength. Nehushta thought a smile nickered on Zoroaster's pale face and his flashing dark blue eyes met hers for a moment, and then the end began. Slowly, and by imperceptible degrees, Zoroaster forced the king down before him, doubling him backwards with irresistible strength, till it seemed as though bone and sinew and muscle must be broken and torn asunder in the desperate resistance. Then, at last, when his head almost touched the ground, Darius groaned and his limbs relaxed. Instantly Zoroaster threw him on his back and kneeled with his whole weight upon his chest,--the gilded scales of the corselet cracking beneath the burden, and he held the king's hands down on either side, pinioned to the floor. Darius struggled desperately twice and then lay quite still. Zoroaster gazed down upon him with blazing eyes.
"Thou who wouldst crucify me upon Shushan," he said through his teeth. "I will slay thee here even as thou didst slay Smerdis. Hast thou anything to say? Speak quickly, for thy hour is come."
Even in the extremity of his agony, vanquished and at the point of death, Darius was brave, as brave men are, to the very last. He would indeed have called for help now, but there was no breath in him. He still gazed fearlessly into the eyes of his terrible conqueror. His voice came in a hoarse whisper.
"I fear not death. Slay on if thou wilt--thou--hast--conquered."
Nehushta had come near. She trembled now that the fight was over, and looked anxiously to the heavy curtains of the tent-door.
"Tell him," she whispered to Zoroaster, "that you will spare him if he will do no harm to you, nor to me."
"Spare him!" echoed Zoroaster scornfully. "He is almost dead now--why should I spare him?"
"For my sake, beloved," answered Nehushta, with a sudden and passionate gesture of entreaty. "He is the king--he speaks truth; if he says he will not harm you, trust him."
"If I slay thee not, swear thou wilt not harm me nor Nehushta," said Zoroaster, removing one knee from the chest of his adversary.
"By the name of Auramazda," gasped Darius, "I will not harm thee nor her."
"It is well," said Zoroaster. "I will let thee go. And as for taking her to be thy wife, thou mayest ask her if she will wed thee," he added. He rose and helped the king to his feet. Darius shook himself and breathed hard for a few minutes. He felt his limbs as a man might do who had fallen from his horse, and then he sat down upon the chair, and broke into a loud laugh.
Darius was well known to all Persia and Media before the events of the last two months, and such was his reputation for abiding by his promise that he was universally trusted by those about him. Zoroaster had known him also, and he remembered his easy familiarity and love of jesting, so that even when he held the king at such vantage that he might have killed him by a little additional pressure of his weight, he felt not the least hesitation in accepting his promise of safety. But remembering what a stake had been played for in the desperate issue, he could not join in the king's laugh. He stood silently apart, and looked at Nehushta who leaned back against the tent-pole in violent agitation; her hands wringing each other beneath her long sleeves, and her eyes turning from the king to Zoroaster, and back again to the king, in evident distress and fear.
"Thou hast a mighty arm, Zoroaster," cried Darius, as his laughter subsided, "and thou hadst well-nigh made an end of the Great King and of Persia, Media, Babylon and Egypt in thy grip."
"Let the king pardon his servant," answered Zoroaster, "if his knee was heavy and his hand strong. Had not the king slipped upon the spilt wine, his servant would have been thrown down."
"And thou wouldst have been crucified at dawn," added Darius, laughing again. "It is well for thee that I am Darius and not Cambyses, or thou wouldst not be standing there before me while my guards are gossiping idly in the road. Give me a cup of wine since thou hast spared my life!" Again the king laughed as though his sides would break. Zoroaster hastily filled another goblet and offered it, kneeling before the monarch. Darius paused before he took the cup, and looked at the kneeling warrior's pale proud face. Then he spoke and his voice dropped to a less mirthful key, as he laid his hand on Zoroaster's shoulder.
"I love thee, prince," he said, "because thou art stronger than I; and as brave and more merciful. Therefore shalt thou stand ever at my right hand and I will trust thee with my life in thy hand. And in pledge hereunto I put my own chain of gold about thy neck, and I drink this cup to thee; and whosoever shall harm a hair of thine head shall perish in torments."
The king drank; and Zoroaster, overcome with genuine admiration of the great soul that could so easily forgive so dire an offence, bent and embraced the king's knees in token of adherence, and as a seal of that friendship which was never to be broken until death parted the two men asunder.
Then they arose, and at Zoroaster's order, the princess's litter was brought, and leaving the encampment to follow after them, they went up to the palace. Nehushta was borne between the litters of her women and her slaves on foot, but Zoroaster mounted his horse and rode slowly and in silence by the right side of the Great King.
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