Poems & Short Stories: 4,435
Forum Members: 67,986
Forum Posts: 1,216,101
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
Athwart the gleaming colonnades of the eastern balcony, the early morning sun shone brightly, and all the shadows of the white marble cornices and capitals and jutting frieze work were blue with the reflection of the cloudless sky. The swallows now and then shot in under the overhanging roof and flew up and down the covered terrace; then with a quick rush, they sped forth again into the dancing sunshine with clean sudden sweep, as when a sharp sword is whirled in the air. Far below, the soft mist of the dawn still lay upon the city, whence the distant cries of the water-carriers and fruitsellers came echoing up from the waking streets, the call of the women to one another from the housetops, and now and then the neighing of a horse far out upon the meadows; while the fleet swallows circled over all in swift wide curves, with a silvery fresh stream of unceasing twittering music.
Zoroaster paced the balcony alone. He was fully armed, with his helmet upon his head; the crest of the winged wheels was replaced by the ensign Darius had chosen for himself,--the half-figure of a likeness of the king with long straight wings on either side, of wrought gold and very fine workmanship. The long purple mantle hung to his heels and the royal chain of gold was about his neck. As he walked the gilded leather of his shoes was reflected in the polished marble pavement and he trod cautiously, for the clean surface was slippery as the face of a mirror. At one end of the terrace a stairway led down to the lower story of the palace, and at the other end a high square door was masked by a heavy curtain of rich purple and gold stuff, that fell in thick folds to the glassy floor. Each time his walk brought him to this end Zoroaster paused, as though expecting that some one should come out. But as it generally happens when a man is waiting for something or some one that the object or person appears unexpectedly, so it occurred that as he turned back from the staircase towards the curtain, he saw that some one had already advanced half the length of the balcony to meet him--and it was not the person for whom he was looking.
At first, he was dazzled for a moment, but his memory served him instantly and he recognised the face and form of a woman he had known and often seen before. She was not tall, but so perfectly proportioned that it was impossible to wish that she were taller. Her close tunic of palest blue, bordered with a gold embroidery at the neck, betrayed the matchless symmetry of her figure, the unspeakable grace of development of a woman in the fullest bloom of beauty. From her knees to her feet, her under tunic showed the purple and white bands that none but the king might wear, and which even for the queen was an undue assumption of the royal insignia. But Zoroaster did not look at her dress, nor at her mantle of royal sea-purple, nor at the marvellous white hands that held together a written scroll. His eyes rested on her face, and he stood still where he was.
He knew those straight and perfect features, not large nor heavy, but of such rare mould and faultless type as man has not seen since, neither will see. The perfect curve of the fresh mouth; the white forward chin with its sunk depression in the midst, the deep-set, blue eyes and the straight pencilled brows; the broad smooth forehead and the tiny ear half hidden in the glory of sun-golden hair; the milk-white skin just tinged with the faint rose-light that never changed or reddened in heat or cold, in anger or in joy--he knew them all; the features of royal Cyrus made soft and womanly in substance, but unchanging still and faultlessly cold in his great daughter Atossa, the child of kings, the wife of kings, the mother of kings.
The heavy curtains had fallen together behind her, and she came forward alone. She had seen Zoroaster before he had seen her, and she moved on without showing any surprise, the heels of her small golden shoes clicking sharply on the polished floor. Zoroaster remained standing for a moment, and then, removing his helmet in salutation, went to one side of the head of the staircase and waited respectfully for the queen to pass. As she came on, passing alternately through the shadow cast by the columns, and the sunlight that blazed between, her advancing figure flashed with a new illumination at every step. She made as though she were going straight on, but as she passed over the threshold to the staircase, she suddenly stopped and turned half round, and looked straight at Zoroaster.
"Thou art Zoroaster," she said in a smooth and musical voice, like the ripple of a clear stream flowing through summer meadows.
"I am Zoroaster, thy servant," he answered, bowing his head. He spoke very coldly.
"I remember thee well," said the queen, lingering by the head of the staircase. "Thou art little changed, saving that thou art stronger, I should think, and more of a soldier than formerly."
Zoroaster stood turning his polished helmet in his hands, but he answered nothing; he cared little for the queen's praises. But she, it seemed, was desirous of pleasing him in proportion as he was less anxious to be pleased, for she turned again and walked forward upon the terrace.
"Come into the sunlight--the morning air is cold," she said, "I would speak with thee awhile."
A carved chair stood in a corner of the balcony. Zoroaster moved it into the sunshine, and Atossa sat down, smiling her thanks to him, while he stood leaning against the balustrade,--a magnificent figure as the light caught his gilded harness and gold neckchain, and played on his long fair beard and nestled in the folds of his purple mantle.
"Tell me--you came last night?" she asked, spreading her dainty hands in the sunshine as though to warm them. She never feared the sun, for he was friendly to her nativity and never seemed to scorch her fair skin like that of meaner women.
"Thy servant came last night," answered the prince.
"Bringing Nehushta and the other Hebrews?" added the queen.
"Tell me something of this Nehushta," said Atossa. She had dropped into a more familiar form of speech. But Zoroaster was careful of his words and never allowed his language to relapse from the distant form of address of a subject to his sovereign.
"The queen knoweth her. She was here as a young child a few years since," he replied. He chose to let Atossa ask questions for all the information she needed.
"It is so long ago," she said, with a little sigh. "Is she fair?"
"Nay, she is dark, after the manner of the Hebrews."
"And the Persians too," she interrupted.
"She is very beautiful," continued Zoroaster. "She is very tall." Atossa looked up quickly with a smile. She was not tall herself, with all her Beauty.
"You admire tall women?"
"Yes," said Zoroaster calmly--well knowing what he said. He did not wish to flatter the queen; and besides he knew her too well to do so if he wished to please her. She was one of those women who are not accustomed to doubt their own superiority over the rest of their sex.
"Then you admire this Hebrew princess?" said she, and paused for an answer. But her companion was as cold and calm as she. Seeing himself directly pressed by a suspicion, he changed his tactics and flattered Atossa for the sake of putting a stop to her questions.
"Height is not of itself beauty," he answered with a courteous smile. "There is a kind of beauty which no height can improve,--a perfection which needs not to be set high for all men to acknowledge it."
The queen simply took no notice of the compliment, but it had its desired effect, for she changed the tone of her talk a little, speaking more seriously.
"Where is she? I will go and see her," she said.
"She rested last night in the upper chambers in the southern part of the palace. Thy servant will bid her come if it be thy desire."
"Presently, presently," answered the queen. "It is yet early, and she was doubtless weary of the journey."
There was a pause. Zoroaster looked down at the beautiful queen as she sat beside him, and wondered whether she had changed; and as he gazed, he fell to comparing her beauty with Nehushta's, and his glance grew more intent than he had meant it should be, so that Atossa looked up suddenly and met his eyes resting on her face.
"It is long since we have met, Zoroaster," she said quickly. "Tell me of your life in that wild fortress. You have prospered in your profession of arms--you wear the royal chain." She put up her hand and touched the links as though to feel them. "Indeed it is very like the chain Darius wore when he went to Babylon the other day." She paused a moment as though trying to recall something; then continued: "Yes--now I think of it, he had no chain when he came back. It is his--of course--why has he given it to you?" Her tones had a tinge of uncertainty in the question,--half imperious, as demanding an answer, half persuading, as though not sure the answer would be given. Zoroaster remembered that intonation of her sweet voice, and he smiled in his beard.
"Indeed," he answered, "the Great King who liveth for ever, put this chain about my neck with his own hands last night, when he halted by the roadside, as a reward, I presume, for certain qualities he believeth his servant Zoroaster to possess."
"Nay, the queen cannot expect me to sing faithfully my own praises. Nevertheless, I am ready to die for the Great King. He knoweth that I am. May he live for ever!"
"It may be that one of the qualities was the successful performance of the extremely difficult task you have lately accomplished," said Atossa, with a touch of scorn.
"A task?" repeated Zoroaster.
"Yes--have you not brought a handful of Hebrew women all the way from Ecbatana to Shushan, through numberless dangers and difficulties, safe and sound, and so carefully prudent of their comfort that they are not even weary, nor have they once hungered or thirsted by the way, nor lost the smallest box of perfume, nor the tiniest of their golden hair-pins? Surely you have deserved to have a royal chain hung about your neck and to be called the king's friend."
"The reward was doubtless greater than my desert. It was no great feat of arms that I had to perform; and yet, in these days a man may leave Media under one king, and reach Shushan under another. The queen knoweth better than any one what sudden changes may take place in the empire," answered Zoroaster, looking calmly into her face as he stood; and she who had been the wife of Cambyses and the wife of the murdered Gomata-Smerdis, and who was now the wife of Darius, looked down and was silent, turning over in her beautiful hands the sealed scroll she bore.
The sun had risen higher while they talked, and his rays were growing hot in the clear air. The mist had lifted from the city below, and all the streets and open places were alive with noisy buyers and sellers, whose loud talking and disputing came up in a continuous hum to the palace on the hill, like the drone of a swarm of bees. The queen rose from her seat.
"It is too warm here," she said, and she once more moved toward the stairway. Zoroaster followed her respectfully, still holding his helmet in his hand. Atossa did not speak till she reached the threshold. Then, as Zoroaster bowed low before her, she paused and looked at him with her clear, deep-blue eyes.
"You have grown very formal in four years," she said softly. "You used to be more outspoken and less of a courtier. I am not changed--we must be friends as we were formerly."
Zoroaster hesitated a moment before he answered:
"I am the Great King's man," he said slowly. "I am, therefore, also the queen's servant."
Atossa raised her delicate eyebrows a little and a shade of annoyance passed for the first time over her perfect face, which gave her a look of sternness.
"I am the queen," she said coldly. "The king may take other wives, but I am the queen. Take heed that you be indeed my servant." Then, as she gathered her mantle about her and put one foot upon the stairs, she touched his shoulder gently with the tips of her fingers and added with a sudden smile, "And I will be your friend." So she passed down the stairs out of sight, leaving Zoroaster alone.
Slowly he paced the terrace again, reflecting profoundly upon his situation. Indeed he had no small cause for anxiety; it was evident that the queen suspected his love for Nehushta, and he was more than half convinced that there were reasons why such an affection would inevitably meet with her disapproval. In former days, before she was married to Cambyses, and afterwards, before Zoroaster had been sent into Media, Atossa had shown so marked a liking for him, that a man more acquainted with the world, would have guessed that she loved him. He had not suspected such a thing, but with a keen perception of character, he had understood that beneath the beautiful features and the frank gentleness of the young princess, there lurked a profound intelligence, an unbending ambition and a cold selfishness without equal; he had mistrusted her, but he had humoured her caprices and been in truth a good friend to her, without in the least wishing to accept her friendship for himself in return. He was but a young captain of five hundred then, although he was the favourite of the court; but his strong arm was dreaded as well as the cutting force of his replies when questioned, and no word of the court gossip had therefore reached his ears concerning Atossa's admiration for him. It was, moreover, so evident that he cared nothing for her beyond the most unaffected friendliness, that her disappointment in not moving his heart was a constant source of satisfaction to her enemies. There had reigned in those days a great and unbridled license in the court, and the fact of the daughter of Cyrus loving and being loved by the handsomest of the king's guards, would not of itself have attracted overmuch notice. But the evident innocence of Zoroaster in the whole affair, and the masterly fashion in which Atossa concealed her anger, if she felt any, caused the matter to be completely forgotten as soon as Zoroaster left Shushan, and events had, since then, succeeded each other too rapidly to give the courtiers leisure for gossiping about old scandals. The isolation in which Gomata had lived during the seven months while he maintained the popular impression that he was not Gomata-Smerdis, but Smerdis the brother of Cambyses, had broken up the court; and the strong, manly character of Darius had checked the license of the nobles suddenly, as a horse-breaker brings up an unbroken colt by flinging the noose about his neck. The king permitted that the ancient custom of marrying as many as four wives should be maintained, and he himself soon set an example by so doing; but he had determined that the whole corrupt fabric of court life should be shattered at one blow; and with his usual intrepid disregard of consequences and his iron determination to maintain his opinions, he had suffered no contradiction of his will. He had married Atossa,--in the first place, because she was the most beautiful woman in Persia; and secondly, because he comprehended her great intelligence and capacity for affairs, and believed himself able to make use of her at his pleasure. As for Atossa herself, she had not hesitated a moment in concurring in the marriage,--she had ruled her former husbands, and she would rule Darius in like manner, she thought, to her own complete aggrandisement and in the face of all rivals. As yet, the king had taken no second wife, although he looked with growing admiration upon the maiden Artystoné, who was then but fifteen years of age, the youngest daughter of Cyrus and own sister to Atossa.
All this Zoroaster knew, and he recognised, also from the meeting he had just had with the queen, that she was desirous of maintaining her friendship with himself. But since the violent scene of the previous night, he had determined to be the king's man in truest loyalty, and he feared lest Atossa's plans might, before long, cross her husband's. Therefore he accepted her offer of friendship coldly, and treated her with the most formal courtesy. On the other hand, he understood well enough that if she resented his manner of acting towards her, and ascertained that he really loved Nehushta, it would be in her power to produce difficulties and complications which he would have every cause for fearing. She would certainly discover the king's admiration for Nehushta. Darius was a man almost incapable of concealment; with whom to think was to act instantly and without hesitation. He generally acted rightly, for his instincts were noble and kingly, and his heart as honest and open as the very light of day. He said what he thought and instantly fulfilled his words. He hated a lie as poison, and the only untruth he had ever been guilty of was told when, in order to gain access to the dwelling of the false Smerdis, he had declared to the guards that he brought news of importance from his father. He had justified this falsehood by the most elaborate and logical apology to his companions, the six princes, and had explained that he only lied for the purpose of saving Persia; and when the lot fell to himself to assume the royal authority, he fulfilled most amply every promise he had given of freeing the country from tyranny, religious despotism and, generally, from what he termed "lies." As for the killing of Gomata-Smerdis, it was an act of public justice, approved by all sensible persons as soon as it was known by what frauds that impostor had seized the kingdom.
With regard to Atossa, Darius had abstained from asking her questions about her seven months of marriage with the usurper. She must have known well enough who the man was, but Darius understood her character well enough to know that she would marry whomsoever she saw in the chief place, and that her counsel and courage would be of inestimable advantage to a ruler. She herself never mentioned the past events to the king, knowing his hatred of lies on the one hand, and that on the other, the plain truth would redound to her discredit. He had given her to understand as much from the first, telling her that he took her for what she was, and not for what she had been. Her mind was at rest about the past, and as for the future, she promised herself her full share in her husband's success, should he succeed, and unbounded liberty in the choice of his successor, should he fail.
But all these considerations did not tend to clear Zoroaster's vision in regard to his own future. He saw himself already placed in a position of extreme difficulty between Nehushta and the king. On the other hand, he dreaded lest he should before long fall into disgrace with the king on account of Atossa's treatment of himself, or incur Atossa's displeasure through the great favour he received from Darius. He knew the queen to be an ambitious woman, capable of the wildest conceptions, and possessed of the utmost skill for their execution.
He longed to see Nehushta and talk with her at once,--to tell her many things and to warn her of many possibilities; above all, he desired to discuss with her the scene of the previous night and the strangely sudden determination the king had expressed to make her his wife.
But he could not leave his post. His orders had been to await the king in the morning upon the eastern terrace; and there he must abide until it pleased Darius to come forth; and he knew Nehushta would not venture down into that part of the palace. He wondered that the king did not come, and he chafed at the delay as he saw the sun rising higher and higher, and the shadows deepening in the terrace. Weary of waiting he sat down at last upon the chair where Atossa had rested, and folded his hands over his sword-hilt,--resigning himself to the situation with the philosophy of a trained soldier.
Sitting thus alone, he fell to dreaming. As he gazed out at the bright sky, he forgot his life and his love, and all things of the present; and his mind wandered away among the thoughts most natural and most congenial to his profound intellect. His attention became fixed in the contemplation of a larger dimension of intelligences,--the veil of darkness parted a little, and for a time he saw clearly in the light of a Greater Universe.
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.