Zoroaster had sat for nearly an hour, his eyes fixed on the blue sky, his thoughts wandering in contemplation of things greater and higher than those of earth, when he was roused by the measured tread of armed men marching in a distant room. In an instant he stood up, his helmet on his head,--the whole force of military habit bringing him back suddenly to the world of reality. In a moment the same heavy curtain, from under which Atossa had issued two hours before, was drawn aside, and a double file of spearmen came out upon the balcony, ranging themselves to right and left with well-drilled precision. A moment more, and the king himself appeared, walking alone, in his armour and winged helmet, his left hand upon the hilt of his sword, his splendid mantle hanging to the ground behind his shoulders. As he came between the soldiers, he walked more slowly, and his dark, deep-set eyes seemed to scan the bearing and accoutrements of each separate spearman. It was rarely indeed, in those early days of his power, that he laid aside his breastplate for the tunic, or his helmet for the tiara and royal crown. In his whole air and gait the character of the soldier dominated, and the look of the conqueror was already in his face.
Zoroaster strode forward a few paces, and stood still as the king caught sight of him, preparing to prostrate himself, according to the ancient custom. But Darius checked him by a gesture; turning half round, he dismissed the guard, who filed back through the door as they had come, and the curtain fell behind them.
"I like not these elaborate customs," said the king. "A simple salutation, the hand to the lips and forehead--it is quite enough. A man might win a battle if he had all the time that it takes him to fall down at my feet and rise up again, twenty times in a day."
As the king's speech seemed to require no answer, Zoroaster stood silently waiting for his orders. Darius walked to the balustrade and stood in the full glare of the sun for a moment, looking out. Then he came back again.
"The town seems to be quiet this morning," he said. "How long did the queen tarry here talking with thee, Zoroaster?"
"The queen talked with her servant for the space of half an hour," answered Zoroaster, without hesitation, though he was astonished at the suddenness and directness of the question.
"She is gone to see thy princess," continued the king.
"The queen told her servant it was yet too early to see Nehushta," remarked the warrior.
"She is gone to see her, nevertheless," asserted Darius, in a tone of conviction. "Now, it stands in reason that when the most beautiful woman in the world has been told that another woman is come who is more beautiful than she, she will not lose a moment in seeing her." He eyed Zoroaster curiously for a moment, and his thick black beard did not altogether hide the smile on his face. "Come," he added, "we shall find the two together."
The king led the way and Zoroaster gravely followed. They passed down the staircase by which the queen had gone, and entering the low passage, came to the small door which she had bolted behind her with so much difficulty. The king pushed his weight against it, but it was still fastened.
"Thou art stronger than I, Zoroaster," he said, with a deep laugh. "Open the door."
The young warrior pushed heavily against the planks, and felt that one of them yielded. Then, standing back, he dealt a heavy blow on the spot with his clenched fist; a second, and the plank broke in. He put his arm through the aperture, and easily slipped the bolt back, and the door flew open. The blood streamed from his hand.
"That is well done," said Darius as he entered. His quick eye saw something white upon the stone bench in the dusky corner by the door. He stooped and picked it up quickly. It was the sealed scroll Atossa had left there when she needed both her hands to draw the bolt. Darius took it to one of the narrow windows, looked at it curiously and broke the seal. Zoroaster stood near and wiped the blood from his bruised knuckle.
The contents of the scroll were short. It was addressed to one Phraortes, of Ecbatana in Media, and contained the information that the Great King had returned in triumph from Babylon, having subdued the rebels and slain many thousands in two battles. Furthermore, that the said Phraortes should give instant information of the queen's affairs, and do nothing in regard to them until further intimation arrived.
The king stood a moment in deep thought. Then he walked slowly down the corridor, holding the scroll loose in his hand. Just at that instant Atossa emerged from the dark staircase, and as she found herself face to face with Darius, she uttered an exclamation and stood still.
"This is very convenient place for our interview," said Darius quietly. "No one can hear us. Therefore speak the truth at once." He held up the scroll to her eyes.
Atossa's ready wit did not desert her, nor did she change colour, though she knew her life was in the balance with her words. She laughed lightly as she spoke:
"I came down the stairs this morning----"
"To see the most beautiful woman in the world," interrupted Darius, raising his voice. "You have seen her. I am glad of it. Why did you bolt the door of the passage?"
"Because I thought it unfitting that the passage to the women's apartments should be left open when so many in the palace know the way," she answered readily enough.
"Where were you taking this letter when you left it at the door?" asked the king, beginning to doubt whether there were anything wrong at all.
"I was about to send it to Ecbatana," answered Atossa with perfect simplicity.
"Who is this Phraortes?"
"He is the governor of the lands my father gave me for my own in Media. I wrote him to tell him of the Great King's victory, and that he should send me information concerning my affairs, and do nothing further until he hears from me."
"Because I thought it possible that the Great King would spend the summer in Ecbatana, and that I should therefore be there myself to give my own directions. I forgot the letter because I had to take both hands to draw the bolt, and I was coming back to get it. Nehushta the princess is with me--she is now upon the staircase."
The king looked thoughtfully at his wife's beautiful face.
"You have evidently spoken the truth," he said slowly. "But it is not always easy to understand what your truth signifies. I often think it would be much wiser to strangle you. Say you that Nehushta is near? Call her, then. Why does she tarry?"
In truth Nehushta had trembled as she crouched upon the stairs, not knowing whether to descend or to fly up the steps again. As she heard the queen pronounce her name, however, she judged it prudent to seem to have been out of earshot, and with quick, soft steps, she went up till she came to the lighted part, and there she waited.
"Let the Great King go himself and find her," said Atossa proudly, "if he doubts me any further." She stood aside to let him pass. But Darius beckoned to Zoroaster to go. He had remained standing at some distance, an unwilling witness to the royal altercation that had taken place before him; but as he passed the queen, she gave him a glance of imploring sadness, as though beseeching his sympathy in what she was made to suffer. He ran quickly up the steps in spite of the darkness, and found Nehushta waiting by the window higher up. She started as he appeared, for he was the person she least expected. But he took her quickly in his arms, and kissed her passionately twice.
"Come quickly, my beloved," he whispered. "The king waits below."
"I heard his voice--and then I fled," she whispered hurriedly; and they began to descend again. "I hate her--I knew I should," she whispered, as she leaned upon his arm. So they emerged into the corridor, and met Darius waiting for them. The queen was nowhere to be seen, and the door at the farther extremity of the narrow way was wide open.
The king was as calm as though nothing had occurred; he still held the open letter in his hand as Nehushta entered the passage, and bowed herself before him. He took her hand for a moment, and then dropped it; but his eyes flashed suddenly and his arm trembled at her touch.
"Thou hadst almost lost thy way," he said. "The palace is large and the passages are many and devious. Come now, I will lead thee to the gardens. There thou canst find friends among the queen's noble women, and amusements of many kinds. Let thy heart delight in the beauty of Shushan, and if there is anything that thou desirest, ask and I will give it thee."
Nehushta bent her head in thanks. The only thing she desired was to be alone for half an hour with Zoroaster; and that seemed difficult.
"Thy servant desireth what is pleasant in thy sight," she answered. And so they left the passage by the open door, and the king himself conducted Nehushta to the entrance of the garden, and bade the slave-woman who met them to lead her to the pavilion where the ladies of the palace spent the day in the warm summer weather. Zoroaster knew that whatever liberty his singular position allowed him in the quarter of the building where the king himself lived, he was not privileged to enter that place which was set apart for the noble ladies. Darius hated to be always surrounded by guards and slaves, and the terraces and staircases of his dwelling were generally totally deserted,--only small detachments of spearmen guarding jealously the main entrances. But the remainder of the palace swarmed with the gorgeously dressed retinue of the court, with slaves of every colour and degree, from the mute smooth-faced Ethiopian to the accomplished Hebrew scribes of the great nobles; from the black and scantily-clad fan-girls to the dainty Greek tirewomen of the queen's toilet, who loitered near the carved marble fountain at the entrance to the gardens; and in the outer courts, detachments of the horsemen of the guard rubbed their weapons, or reddened their broad leather bridles and trappings with red chalk, or groomed the horse of some lately arrived officer or messenger, or hung about and basked in the sun, with no clothing but their short-sleeved linen tunics and breeches, discussing the affairs of the nation with the certainty of decision peculiar to all soldiers, high and low. There was only room for a squadron of horse in the palace; but though they were few, they were the picked men of the guard, and every one of them felt himself as justly entitled to an opinion concerning the position of the new king, as though he were at least a general.
But Darius allowed no gossiping slaves nor wrangling soldiers in his own dwelling. There all was silent and apparently deserted, and thither he led Zoroaster again. The young warrior was astonished at the way in which the king moved about unattended, as carelessly as though he were a mere soldier himself; he was not yet accustomed to the restless independence of character, to the unceasing activity and perfect personal fearlessness of the young Darius. It was hard to realise that this simple, hard-handed, outspoken man was the Great King, and occupied the throne of the magnificent and stately Cyrus, who never stirred abroad without the full state of the court about him; or that he reigned in the stead of the luxurious Cambyses, who feared to tread upon uncovered marble, or to expose himself to the draught of a staircase; and who, after seven years of caring for his body, had destroyed himself in a fit of impotent passion. Darius succeeded to the throne of Persia as a lion coming into the place of jackals, as an eagle into a nest of crows and carrion birds--untiring, violent, relentless and brave.
"Knowest thou one Phraortes, of Ecbatana?" the king asked suddenly when he was alone with Zoroaster.
"I know him," answered the prince. "A man rich, and powerful, full of vanity as a peacock, and of wiles like a serpent. Not noble. He is the son of a fish-vendor, grown rich by selling salted sturgeons in the market-place. He is also the overseer of the queen's farmlands in Media, and of the Great King's horse-breeding stables."
"Go forth and bring him to me," said the king shortly. Without a word, Zoroaster made a brief salute and turned upon his heel to go. But it was as though a man had thrust him through with a knife. The king gazed after him in admiration of his magnificent obedience.
"Stay!" he called out. "How long wilt thou be gone?"
Zoroaster turned sharply round in military fashion, as he answered:
"It is a hundred and fifty farsangs to Ecbatana. By the king's relays I can ride there in six days, and I can bring back Phraortes in six days more--if he die not of the riding," he added, with a grim smile.
[Footnote 3: Between five and six hundred English miles. South American postilions at the present day ride six hundred miles a week for a bare living.]
"Is he old, or young? Fat, or meagre?" asked the king, laughing.
"He is a man of forty years, neither thin nor fat--a good horseman in his way, but not as we are."
"Bind him to his horse if he falls off from weariness. And tell him he is summoned to appear before me. Tell him the business brooks no delay. Auramazda be with thee and bring thee help. Go with speed."
Again Zoroaster turned and in a moment he was gone. He had sworn to be the king's faithful servant, and he would keep his oath, cost what it might, though it was bitterness to him to leave Nehushta without a word. He bethought him as he hastily put on light garments for the journey, that he might send her a letter, and he wrote a few words upon a piece of parchment, and folded it together. As he passed by the entrance of the garden on his way to the stables, he looked about for one of Nehushta's slaves; but seeing none, he beckoned to one of the Greek tirewomen, and giving her a piece of gold, bade her take the little scroll to Nehushta, the Hebrew princess, who was in the gardens. Then he went quickly on, and mounting the best horse in the king's stables, galloped at a break-neck pace down the steep incline. In five minutes he had crossed the bridge, and was speeding over the straight, dusty road toward Nineveh. In a quarter of an hour, a person watching him from the palace would have seen his flying figure disappearing as in a tiny speck of dust far out upon the broad, green plain.
But the Greek slave-woman stood with Zoroaster's letter in her hand and held the gold piece he had given her in her mouth, debating what she should do. She was one of the queen's women, as it chanced, and she immediately reflected that she might turn the writing to some better account than by delivering it to Nehushta, whom she had seen for a moment that morning as she passed, and whose dark Hebrew face displeased the frivolous Greek, for some hidden reason. She thought of giving the scroll to the queen, but then she reflected that she did not know what it contained. The words were written hastily and in the Chaldean character. Their import might displease her mistress. The woman was not a newcomer, and she knew Zoroaster's face well enough from former times; she knew also, or suspected, that the queen secretly loved him, and she argued from the fact of Zoroaster, who was dressed for a journey, sending so hastily a word to Nehushta, that he loved the Hebrew princess. Therefore, if the letter were a mere love greeting, with no name written in it, the queen might apply it to herself, and she would be pleased; whereas, if it were in any way clear that the writing was intended for Nehushta, the queen would certainly be glad that it should never be delivered. The result of this cunning argument was that the Greek woman thrust the letter into her bosom, and the gold piece into her girdle; and went to seek an opportunity of seeing the queen alone.
That day, towards evening, Atossa sat in an inner chamber before her great mirror; the table was covered with jade boxes, silver combs, bowls of golden hair-pins, little ivory instruments, and all the appurtenances of her toilet. Two or three magnificent jewels lay among the many articles of use, gleaming in the reflected light of the two tall lamps that stood on bronze stands beside her chair. She was fully attired and had dismissed her women; but she lingered a moment, poring over the little parchment scroll her chief hairdresser had slipped into her hand when they were alone for a moment. Only a black fan-girl stood a few paces behind her, and resting the stem of the long palm against one foot thrust forward, swung the broad round leaf quickly from side to side at arm's length, sending a constant stream of fresh air upon her royal mistress, just below the level of the lamps which burned steadily above.
The queen turned the small letter again in her hand, and smiled to herself as she looked into the great burnished sheet of silver that surmounted the table. With some difficulty she had mastered the contents, for she knew enough of Hebrew and of the Chaldean character to comprehend the few simple words.
"I go hence for twelve days upon the king's business. My beloved, my soul is with thy soul and my heart with thy heart. As the dove that goeth forth in the morning and returneth in the evening to his mate, so I will return soon to thee."
Atossa knew well enough that the letter had been intended for Nehushta. The woman had whispered that Zoroaster had given it to her, and Zoroaster would never have written those words to herself; or, writing anything, would not have written in the Hebrew language.
But as the queen read, her heart rose up in wrath against the Persian prince and against the woman he loved. When she had talked with him that morning, she had felt her old yearning affection rising again in her breast. She had wondered at herself, being accustomed to think that she was beyond all feeling for man, and the impression she had received from her half-hour's talk with him was so strong, that she had foolishly delayed sending her letter to Phraortes, in order to see the woman Zoroaster admired, and had, in her absence of mind, forgotten the scroll upon the seat in the corridor, and had brought herself into such desperate danger through the discovery of the missive, that she hardly yet felt safe. The king had dismissed her peremptorily from his presence while he waited for Nehushta, and she had not seen him during the rest of the day. As for Zoroaster, she had soon heard from her women that he had taken the road towards Nineveh before noon, alone and almost unarmed, mounted upon one of the fleetest horses in Persia. She had not a doubt that Darius had despatched him at once to Ecbatana to meet Phraortes, or at least to inquire into the state of affairs in the city. She knew that no one could outride Zoroaster, and that there was nothing to be done but to await the issue. It was not possible to send a word of warning to her agent--he must inevitably take his chance, and if his conduct attracted suspicion, he would, in all probability, be at once put to death. She believed that, even in that event, she could easily clear herself; but she resolved, if possible, to warn him as soon as he reached Shushan, or even to induce the king to be absent from the palace for a few days at the time when Phraortes might be expected. There was plenty of time--at least eleven days.
Meanwhile, a desperate struggle was beginning within her, and the letter her woman had brought her hastened the conclusion to which her thoughts were rapidly tending.
She felt keenly the fact that Zoroaster, who had been so cold to her advances in former days, had preferred before her a Hebrew woman, and was now actually so deeply in love with Nehushta, that he could not leave the palace for a few days without writing her a word of love--he, who had never loved any one! She fiercely hated this dark woman, who was preferred before her by the man she secretly loved, and whom the king had brutally declared to be the most beautiful woman in the world. She longed for her destruction as she had never longed for anything in her life. Her whole soul rose in bitter resentment; not only did Zoroaster love this black-eyed, dark-browed child of captivity, but the king, who had always maintained that Atossa was unequalled in the world, even when he coldly informed her that he would never trust her, now dared to say before Zoroaster, almost before Nehushta herself, that the princess was the more beautiful of the two. The one man wounded her in her vanity, the other in her heart.
It would not be possible at present to be revenged upon the king. There was little chance of eluding his sleepless vigilance, or of leading him into any rash act of self-destruction. Besides, she knew him too well not to understand that he was the only man alive who could save Persia from further revolutions, and keep the throne against all comers. She loved power and the splendour of her royal existence, perhaps more than she loved Zoroaster. The idea of another change in the monarchy was not to be thought of, now that Darius had subdued Babylon. She had indeed a half-concerted plan with Phraortes to seize the power in Media in case the king were defeated in Babylonia, and the scroll she had so imprudently forgotten that very morning was merely an order to lay aside all such plans for the present, since the king had returned in triumph.
As far as her conscience was concerned, Atossa would as soon have overthrown and murdered the king to gratify the personal anger she felt against him at the present moment, as she would have wrecked the universe to possess a jewel she fancied. There existed in her mind no idea of proportion between the gratification of her passions and the means she might employ thereto; provided one gratification did not interfere with another which she always saw beyond. Nothing startled her on account of its mere magnitude; no plan was rejected by her merely because it implied ruin to a countless number of human beings who were useless to her. She coldly calculated the amount of satisfaction she could at any time obtain for her wishes and desires, so as not to prejudice the gratification of all the possible passions she might hereafter experience.
As for injuring Zoroaster, she would not have thought of it. She loved him in a way peculiar to herself, but it was love, nevertheless,--and she had no idea of wreaking her disappointment upon the object on which she had set her heart. As a logical consequence, she determined to turn all her anger against Nehushta, and she pictured to herself the delicious pleasure of torturing the young princess's jealousy to desperation. To convince Nehushta that Zoroaster was deceiving her, and really loved herself, the queen; to force Zoroaster into some position where he must either silently let Nehushta believe that he was attached to Atossa, or, as an alternative, betray the king's secrets by speaking the truth; to let Nehushta's vanity be flattered by the king's admiration,--nay, even to force her into a marriage with Darius, and then by suffering her again to fall into her first love for Zoroaster, bring her to a public disgrace by suddenly unmasking her to the king--to accomplish these things surely and quickly, reserving for herself the final delight of scoffing at her worsted rival--all this seemed to Atossa to constitute a plan at once worthy of her profound and scheming intelligence, and most sweetly satisfactory to her injured vanity and rejected love.
It would be hard for her to see Nehushta married to the king, and occupying the position of chief favourite even for a time. But the triumph would be the sweeter when Nehushta was finally overthrown, and meanwhile there would be much daily delight in tormenting the princess's jealousy. Chance, or rather the cunning of her Greek tirewoman, had thrown a weapon in her way which could easily be turned into an instrument of torture, and as she sat before her mirror, she twisted and untwisted the little bit of parchment, and smiled to herself, a sweet bright smile--and leaned her head back to the pleasant breeze of the fan.