The noonday air was hot and dry in the garden of the palace, but in the graceful marble pavilion there was coolness and the sound of gently plashing water. Rose-trees and climbing plants screened the sunlight from the long windows, and gave a soft green tinge to the eight-sided hall, where a fountain played in the midst, its little jet falling into a basin hollowed in the floor. On the rippling surface a few water-lilies swayed gently with the constant motion, anchored by their long stems to the bottom. All was cool and quiet and restful, and Nehushta stood looking at the fountain.
She was alone and very unhappy. Zoroaster had left the palace without a word to her, and she knew only by the vague reports her slaves brought her, that he was gone for many days. Her heart sank at the thought of all that might happen before he returned, and the tears stood in her eyes.
"Are you here alone, dear princess?" said a soft, clear voice behind her. Nehushta started, as though something had stung her, as she recognised Atossa's tones. There was nothing of her assumed cordiality of the previous day as she answered. She was too unhappy, too weary of the thought that her lover was gone, to be able to act a part, or pretend a friendliness she did not feel.
"Yes--I am alone," she said quietly.
"So am I," answered Atossa, her blue eyes sparkling with the sunshine she brought in with her, and all her wonderful beauty beaming, as it were, with an overflowing happiness. "The ladies of the court are gone in state to the city, in the Great King's train, and you and I are alone in the palace. How deliciously cool it is in here."
She sat down upon a heap of cushions by one of the screened windows and contemplated Nehushta, who still stood by the fountain.
"You look sad--and tired, dearest Nehushta," said she presently. "Indeed you must not be sad here--nobody is sad here!"
"I am sad," repeated Nehushta, in a dreary, monotonous way, as though scarcely conscious of what she was saying. There was a moment's silence before Atossa spoke again.
"Tell me what it is," she said at last, in persuasive accents. "Tell me what is the matter. It may be that you lack something--that you miss something you were used to in Ecbatana. Will you not tell me, dearest?"
"Tell you what?" asked Nehushta, as though she had not heard.
"Tell me what it is that makes you sad," repeated the queen.
"Tell you?" exclaimed the princess, suddenly looking up, with flashing eyes, "tell you? oh no!"
Atossa looked a little sadly at Nehushta, as though hurt at the want of confidence she showed. But the Hebrew maiden turned away and went and looked through the hanging plants at the garden without. Then Atossa rose softly and came and stood behind her, and put her arm about her, and let her own fair cheek rest against the princess's dark face. Nehushta said nothing, but she trembled, as though something she hated were touching her.
"Is it because your friend has gone away suddenly?" asked Atossa almost in a whisper, with the sweetest accent of sympathy. Nehushta started a little.
"No!" she answered, almost fiercely. "Why do you say that?"
"Only--he wrote me a little word before he went. I thought you might like to know he was safe," replied the queen, gently pressing her arm about Nehushta's slender waist.
"Wrote to you?" repeated the princess, in angry surprise.
"Yes, dearest," answered the queen, looking down in well-feigned embarrassment. "I would not have told you, only I thought you would wish to hear of him. If you like, I will read you a part of what he says," she added, producing from her bosom the little piece of parchment carefully rolled together.
It was more than Nehushta could bear. Her olive skin turned suddenly pale, and she tore herself away from the queen.
"Oh no! no! I will not hear it! Leave me in peace--for your gods' sake, leave me in peace!"
Atossa drew herself up and stared coldly at Nehushta, as though she were surprised beyond measure and deeply offended.
"Truly, I need not be told twice to leave you in peace," she said proudly. "I thought to comfort you, because I saw you were sad--even at the expense of my own feelings. I will leave you now--but I bear no malice against you. You are very, very young, and very, very foolish."
Atossa shook her head, thoughtfully, and swept from the pavilion in stately and offended dignity. But as she walked alone through the garden, she smiled to herself and softly hummed a merry melody she had heard from an Egyptian actor on the previous evening. Darius had brought a company of Egyptians from Babylon, and after the banquet, had commanded that they should perform their music, and dancing, and mimicry, for the amusement of the assembled court.
Atossa's sweet voice echoed faintly among the orange trees and the roses, as she went towards the palace, and the sound of it came distantly to Nehushta's ears. She stood for a while where the queen had left her, her face pale and her hands wringing together; and then, with a sudden impulse, she went and threw herself upon the floor, and buried her head in the deep, soft cushions. Her hands wandered in the wealth of her black hair, and her quick, hot tears stained the delicate silk of the pillows.
How could he? How was it possible? He said he loved her, and now, when he was sent away for many days, his only thought had been to write to the queen--not to herself! An agony of jealousy overwhelmed her, and she could have torn out her very soul, and trampled her own heart under her feet in her anger. Passionately she clasped her hands to her temples; her head seemed splitting with a new and dreadful pain that swallowed all her thoughts for a moment, until the cold weight seemed again to fall upon her breast and all her passion gushed out in abundant tears. Suddenly a thought struck her. She roused herself, leaning upon one hand, and stared vacantly a moment at her small gilded shoe which had fallen from her bare foot upon the marble pavement. She absently reached forward and took the thing in her hand, and gravely contemplated the delicate embroidery and thick gilding, through her tears,--as one will do a foolish and meaningless thing in the midst of a great sorrow.
Was it possible that the queen had deceived her? How she wished she had let her read the writing as she had offered to do. She did not imagine at first that the letter was for herself and had gone astray. But she thought the queen might easily have pretended to have received something, or had even scratched a few words upon a bit of parchment, meaning to pass it off upon her as a letter from Zoroaster. She longed to possess the thing and to judge of it with her own eyes. It would hardly be possible to say whether it were written by him or not, as far as the handwriting was concerned; but Nehushta was sure she should recognise some word, some turn of language that would assure her that it was his. She could almost have risen and gone in search of the queen at once, to prove the lie upon her--to challenge her to show the writing. But her pride forbade her. She had been so weak--she should not have let Atossa see, even for a moment, that she was hurt, not even that she loved Zoroaster. She had tried to conceal her feelings, but Atossa had gone too far, had tortured her beyond all endurance, and she knew that, even if she had known what to expect, she could not have easily borne the soft, infuriating, deadly, caressing, goading taunts of that fair, cruel woman.
Then again, the whole possibility of Zoroaster's unfaithfulness came and took shape before her. He had known and loved Atossa of old, perhaps, and now the old love had risen up and killed the new--he had sworn so truly under the ivory moonlight in Ecbatana. And yet--he had written to this other woman and not to her. Was it true? Was it Atossa's cruel lie? In a storm of doubt and furious passion, her tears welled forth again; and once more she hid her face in the pale yellow cushions, and her whole beautiful body trembled and was wrung with her sobs.
Suddenly she was aware that some one entered the little hall and stood beside her. She dared not look up at first; she was unstrung and wretched in her grief and anger, and it was the strong, firm tread of a man. The footsteps ceased, and the intruder, whoever he might be, was standing still; she took courage and looked quickly up. It was the king himself. Indeed, she might have known that no other man would dare to penetrate into the recesses of the garden set apart for the ladies of the palace.
Darius stood quietly gazing at her with an expression of doubt and curiosity, that was almost amusing, on his stern, dark face. Nehushta was frightened, and sprang to her feet with the graceful quickness of a startled deer. She was indolent by nature, but as swift as light when she was roused by fear or excitement.
"Are you so unhappy in my palace?" asked Darius gently. "Why are you weeping? Who has hurt you?"
Nehushta turned her face away and dashed the tears from her eyes, while her cheeks flushed hotly.
"I am not weeping--no one--has hurt me," she answered, in a voice broken rather by embarrassment and annoyance, than by the sorrow she had nearly forgotten in her sudden astonishment at being face to face with the king.
Darius smiled, and almost laughed, as he stroked his thick beard with his broad brown hand.
"Princess," he said, "will you sit down again? I will deliver you a discourse upon the extreme folly of ever telling"--he hesitated--"of saying anything which is not precisely true."
There was something so simple and honest in his manner of speaking, that Nehushta almost smiled through her half-dried tears as she sat upon the cushions at the king's feet. He himself sat down upon the broad marble seat that ran round the eight-sided little building, and composing his face to a serious expression, that was more than half-assumed, began to deliver his lecture.
"I take it for granted that when one tells a lie, he expects to be believed. There must, then, be some thing or circumstance which can help to make his lies credible. Now, my dear princess, in the present instance, while I was looking you in the face and counting the tears upon your very beautiful cheeks, you deliberately told me that you were not weeping. There was, therefore, not even the shadow of a thing, or circumstance which could make what you said credible. It is evident that what you said was not true. Is it not so?"
Nehushta could not help smiling as she looked up and saw the kindly light in the king's dark eyes. She thought she understood he was amusing her for the sake of giving her time to collect herself, and in spite of the determined intention of marrying her he had so lately expressed, she felt safe with him.
"The king lives for ever," she answered, in the set phrase of assent common at the court.
"It is very probable," replied Darius gravely. "So many people say so, that I should have to believe all mankind liars if that were not true. But I must return to your own particular case. It would have been easy for you not to have said what you did. I must therefore suppose that in going out of the way to make an attempt to deceive me in the face of such evidence--by saying you were not weeping when the tears were actually falling from those very soft eyes of yours--you had an object to gain. Men employ truth and falsehood for much the same reason: A man who does not respect truth will, therefore, lie when he can hope to gain more by it. The man who lies expects to gain something by his lie, and the man who tells the truth hopes that, in so doing, he will establish himself a credit which he can use upon future occasions. But the object is the same. Tell me, therefore, princess, what did you hope to gain by trying to deceive me?" Darius laughed as he concluded his argument and looked at Nehushta to see what she would say--Nehushta laughed also, she could hardly tell why. The king's brilliant, active humour was catching. She reached out and thrust her foot into the little slipper that still lay beside her, before she answered.
[Footnote 4: Herodotus, book iii. chap. lxxii.]
"What I said was true in one way and not in another," she said. "I had been crying bitterly, but I stopped when I heard the king come and stand beside me. So it was only the tears the king saw and not the weeping. As for the object,"--she laughed a little,--"it was, perhaps, that I might gain time to dry my eyes."
Darius shifted his position a little.
"I know," he said gravely. "And I know why you were weeping, and it is my fault. Will you forgive me, princess? I am a hasty man, not accustomed to think twice when I give my commands."
Nehushta looked up suddenly with an expression of inquiry.
"I sent him away very quickly," continued the king. "If I had thought, I would have told him to come and bid you farewell. He would not have willingly gone without seeing you--it was my fault. He will return in twelve days."
Nehushta was silent and bit her lip as the bitter thought arose in her heart that it was not alone Zoroaster's sudden departure that had pained her. Then it floated across her mind that the king had purposely sent away her lover in order that he might himself try to win her heart.
"Why did you send him--and not another?" she asked, without looking up, and forgetting all formality of speech.
"Because he is the man of all others whom I can trust, and I needed a faithful messenger," answered Darius, simply.
Nehushta gazed into the king's face searching for some sign there, but he had spoken earnestly enough.
"I thought--" she began, and then stopped short, blushing crimson.
"You thought," answered Darius, "that I had sent him away never to return because I desire you for my wife. It was natural, but it was unjust. I sent him because I was obliged to do so. If you wish it, I will leave you now, and I will promise you that I will not look upon your face till Zoroaster returns."
Nehushta looked down and she still blushed. She could hardly believe her ears.
"Indeed," she faltered, "it were perhaps--best--I mean--" she could not finish the sentence. Darius rose quietly from his seat:
"Farewell, princess; it shall be as you desire," he said gravely, and strode towards the door. His face was pale and his lips set tight.
Nehushta hesitated and then, in a moment, she comprehended the whole nobility of soul of the young king,--a man at whose words the whole land trembled, who crushed his enemies like empty egg-shells beneath his feet, and yet who, when he held the woman he loved completely in his power, refused, even for a moment, to intrude his presence upon her against her wish.
She sprang from her seat and ran to him, and kneeled on one knee and took his hand. He did not look at her, but his own hand trembled violently in hers, and he made as though he would lift her to her feet.
"Nay," she cried, "let not my lord be angry with his handmaiden! Let the king grant me my request, for he is the king of men and of kings!" In her sudden emotion she spoke once more in the form of a humble subject addressing her sovereign.
"Speak, princess," answered Darius. "If it be possible, I will grant your request."
"I would--" she stopped, and again the generous blood overspread her dark cheek. "I would--I know not what I would, saving to thank thee for thy goodness and kindness--I was unhappy, and thou hast comforted me. I meant not that it was best that I should not look upon the king's face." She spoke the last words in so low a tone as she bent her head, that Darius could scarcely hear them. But his willing ears interpreted rightly what she said, and he understood.
"Shall I come to you to-morrow, princess, at the same hour?" he asked, almost humbly.
"Nay, the king knoweth that the garden is ever full of the women of the court," said Nehushta, hesitating; for she thought that it would be a very different matter to be seen from a distance by all the ladies of the palace in conversation with the king.
"Do not fear," answered Darius. "The garden shall be yours. There are other bowers of roses in Shushan whither the women can go. None but you shall enter here, so long as it be your pleasure. Farewell, I will come to you to-morrow at noon."
He turned and looked into her eyes, and then she took his hand and silently placed it upon her forehead in thanks. In a moment he was gone and she could hear his quick tread upon the marble of the steps outside, and in the path through the roses. When she knew that he was out of sight, Nehushta went out and stood in the broad blaze of the noonday sun. She passed her hand over her forehead, as though she had been dazed. It seemed as though a change had come over her and she could not understand it.
In the glad security of being alone, she ran swiftly down one of the paths, and across by another. Then she stopped short and bent down a great bough of blooming roses and buried her beautiful dark face in the sweet leaves and smelled the perfume, and laughed.
"Oh! I am so happy!" she cried aloud. But her face suddenly became grave, as she tried to understand what she felt. After all, Zoroaster was only gone for twelve days, and meanwhile she had secured her liberty, the freedom of wandering all day in the beautiful gardens, and she could dream of him to her heart's content. And the letter? It was a forgery, of course. That wicked queen loved Zoroaster and wished to make Nehushta give him up! Perhaps she might tell the king something of it when he came on the next day. He would be so royally angry! He would so hate the lie! And yet, in some way, it seemed to her that she could not tell Darius of this trouble. He had been so kind, so gentle, as though he had been her brother, instead of the Great King himself, who bore life and death in his right hand and his left, whose shadow was a terror to the world already, and at whose brief, imperious word a nation rose to arms and victory. Was this the terrible Darius? The man who had slain the impostor with his own sword? who had vanquished rebel Babylon in a few days and brought home four thousand captives at his back? He was as gentle as a girl, this savage warrior--but when she recalled his features, she remembered the stern look that came into his face when he was serious, she grew thoughtful and wandered slowly down the path, biting a rose-leaf delicately with her small white teeth and thinking many things; most of all, how she might be revenged upon Atossa for what she had suffered that morning.
But Atossa herself was enjoying at that very moment the triumph of the morning and quietly planning how she might continue the torment she had imagined for Nehushta, without allowing its cruelty to diminish, while keeping herself amused and occupied to the fullest extent until Zoroaster should return. It was not long before she learned from her chief tirewoman that the king had been in the pavilion of the garden with Nehushta that morning, and it at once occurred to her that, if the king returned on the following day, it would be an easy thing to appear while he was with the princess, and by veiled words and allusions to Zoroaster, to make her rival suffer the most excruciating torments, which she would be forced to conceal from the king.
But, at the same time, the news gave her cause for serious thought. She had certainly not intended that Nehushta should be left alone for hours with Darius. She knew indeed that the princess loved Zoroaster, but she could not conceive that any woman should be insensible to the consolation the Great King could offer. If affairs took such a turn, she fully intended to allow the king to marry Nehushta, while she confidently believed it in her power to destroy her just when she had reached the summit of her ambition.
It chanced that the king chose that day to eat his evening meal in the sole company of Atossa, as he sometimes did when weary of the court ceremony. When, therefore, they reclined at sundown upon a small secluded terrace of the upper story, Atossa found an excellent opportunity of discussing Nehushta and her doings.
Darius lay upon a couch on one side of the low table, and Atossa was opposite to him. The air was dry and intensely hot, and on each side two black fan-girls plied their palm-leaves silently with all their might. The king lay back upon his cushions, his head uncovered, and all his shaggy curls of black hair tossed behind him, his broad, strong hand circling a plain goblet of gold that stood beside him on the table. For once, he had laid aside his breastplate, and a vest of white and purple fell loosely over his tunic; but his sword of keen Indian steel lay within reach upon the floor.
Atossa had raised herself upon her elbow, and her clear blue eyes were fixed upon the king's face, thoughtfully, as though expecting that he would say something. Contrary to all custom, she wore a Greek tunic with short sleeves caught at the shoulders by golden buckles, and her fair hair was gathered into a heavy knot, low down, behind her head. Her dazzling arms and throat were bare, but above her right elbow she wore a thick twisted snake of gold, her only ornament.
"The king is not athirst to-night," said Atossa at last, watching the full goblet that he grasped, but did not raise.
"I am not always thirsty," answered Darius moodily. "Would you have me always drunk, like a Babylonian dog?"
"No; nor always sober, like a Persian captain."
"What Persian captain?" asked the king, suddenly looking at her and knitting his brows.
"Why, like him, whom, for his sobriety you have sent to-day on the way to Nineveh," answered Atossa.
"I have sent no one to Nineveh to-day."
"To Ecbatana then, to inquire whether I told you the truth about my poor servant Phraortes--Fravartish, as you call him," said the queen, with a flash of spite in her blue eyes.
"I assure you," answered the king, laughing, "that it is solely on account of your remarkable beauty that I have not had you strangled. So soon as you grow ugly you shall surely die. It is very unwise of me, as it is!"
The queen, too, laughed, a low, silvery laugh.
"I am greatly indebted for my life," said she. "I am very beautiful, I am aware, but I am no longer the most beautiful woman in the world." She spoke without a trace of annoyance in her voice or face, as though it were a good jest.
"No," said Darius, thoughtfully. "I used to think that you were. It is in the nature of man to change his opinion. You are, nevertheless, very beautiful--I admire your Greek dress."
"Shall I send my tirewoman with one like it to Nehushta?" inquired Atossa, raising her delicate eyebrows, with a sweet smile.
"You will not need to improve her appearance in order that she may find favour in my eyes," answered Darius, laughing. "But the jest is good. You would rather send her an Indian snake than an ornament."
"Yes," returned the queen, who understood the king's strange character better than any one. "You cannot in honesty expect me not to hate a woman whom you think more beautiful than me! It would hardly be natural. It is unfortunate that she should prefer the sober Persian captain to the king himself."
"It is unfortunate--yes--fortunate for you, however."
"I mean, it will chafe sadly upon you when you have married her," said Atossa, calmly.
Darius raised the goblet he still held and setting it to his lips drank it at a draught. As he replaced it on the table, Atossa rose swiftly, and with her own hands refilled it from a golden ewer. The wine was of Shiraz, dark and sweet and strong. The king took her small white hand in his, as she stood beside him, and looked at it.
"It is a beautiful hand," he said. "Nehushta's fingers are a trifle shorter than yours--a little more pointed--a little less grasping. Shall I marry Nehushta, or not?" He looked up as he asked the question, and he laughed.
"No," answered Atossa, laughing too.
"Shall I marry her to Zoroaster?"
"No," she answered again, but her laugh was less natural.
"What shall I do with her?" asked the king.
"Strangle her!" replied Atossa, with a little fierce pressure on his hand as he held hers, and without the least hesitation.
"There would be frequent sudden deaths in Persia, if you were king," said Darius.
"It seems to me there are enough slain, as it is," answered the queen. "There are, perhaps, one--or two----"
Suddenly the king's face grew grave, and he dropped her hand.
"Look you!" he said, "I love jesting. But jest not overmuch with me. Do no harm to Nehushta, or I will make an end of your jesting for ever, by sure means. That white throat of yours would look ill with a bow-string about it."
The queen bit her lip. The king seldom spoke to her in earnest, and she was frightened.
On the following day, when she went to the garden, two tall spearmen guarded the entrance, and as she was about to go in, they crossed their lances over the marble door and silently barred the way.