Marzio's Crucifix and Zoroaster
by F. Marion Crawford
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It seemed as though Marzio's wish had been accomplished without his agency. A deadly livid colour overspread the priest's refined features, and as they lifted him his limp limbs hung down as though the vitality would never return to them—all except the left arm, which was turned stiffly out and seemed to refuse to hang down with the rest. It was dislocated at the shoulder.

A scene of indescribable confusion followed, in which Gianbattista alone seemed to maintain some semblance of coolness. The rest all spoke and cried at once. Maria Luisa and Lucia knelt beside the body where they had laid it on the steps of the high altar, crying aloud, kissing the white hands and beating their breasts, praying, sobbing, and calling upon Paolo to speak to them, all in a breath.

"He is dead as a stone," said one of the workmen in a low voice.

"Eh! He is in Paradise," said another, kneeling at the priest's feet and rubbing them.

"Take him to the hospital, Sor Tista—"

"Better take him home—"

"I will run and call Sor Marzio—"

"There is an apothecary in the next street."

"A doctor is better—apothecaries are all murderers."

Gianbattista, very pale, but collected and steady, pushed the men gently away from the body.

"Cari miei, my dear fellows," he said, "he may be alive. One of you run and get a carriage to the side door of the sacristy. The rest of you put the things together and be careful to leave nothing where it can fall. We will take him to Sor Marzio's house and get the best doctor."

"There is not even a drop of holy water in the basins," moaned Maria Luisa.

"He will go to Heaven without holy water," sobbed Lucia. "Oh, how good he was—"

Gianbattista kneeled down in his turn and tried to find the pulse in the poor limp wrist. Then he listened for the heart. He fancied he could hear a faint flutter in the breast. He looked up and a little colour came to his pale face.

"I think he is alive," he said to the two women, and then bent down again and listened. "Yes," he continued joyfully. "The heart beats. Gently—help me to carry him to the sacristy; get his hat one of you. So—carefully—do not twist that arm. I think I see colour in his cheeks—"

With four other men Gianbattista raised the body and bore it carefully to the sacristy. The cab was already at the door, and in a few minutes poor Don Paolo was placed in it. The hood was raised, and Maria Luisa got in and sat supporting the drooping head upon her broad bosom. Lucia took the little seat in front, and Gianbattista mounted to the box, after directing the four men to follow in a second cab as fast as they could, to help to carry the priest upstairs. He sent another in search of a surgeon.

"Do not tell Sor Marzio—do not go to the workshop," he said in a last injunction. He knew that Marzio would be of no use in such an emergency, and he hoped that Don Paolo might be pronounced out of danger before the chiseller knew anything of the accident.

In half an hour the injured man was lying in Gianbattista's bed. It was now evident that he was alive, for he breathed heavily and regularly. But the half-closed eyes had no intelligence in them, and the slight flush in the hollow cheeks was not natural to see. The twisted arm still stuck out of the bed-coverings in a painfully distorted attitude. The two women and Gianbattista stood by the bedside in silence, waiting for the arrival of the surgeon.

He came at last, a quiet-looking man of middle age, with grizzled hair and a face deeply pitted with the smallpox. He seemed to know what he was about, for he asked for a detailed account of the accident from Gianbattista while he examined the patient. The young man, who was beginning to feel the effects of the fall, now that the first excitement had subsided, sat down while he told the story. The surgeon urged the two women to leave the room.

"The left arm is dislocated at the shoulder, without fracture," said the surgeon. "Lend me a hand, will you? Hold his body firmly—here and here—with all your might, while I pull the joint into place. If his head or spine are not injured the pain may bring him to consciousness. That will be a good thing. Now, ready—one, two, three, pull!"

The two men gave a vigorous jerk, and to Gianbattista's surprise the arm fell back in a natural position; but the injured priest's features expressed no pain. He was evidently quite unconscious. A further examination led the surgeon to believe that the harm was more serious. There was a bad bruise on one side of the head, and more than one upon other parts of the body.

"Will he live?" asked Gianbattista faintly, as he sank back into his chair.

"Oh yes—probably. He is likely to have a brain fever; One cannot tell. How old is he?"

He asked one or two other questions, arranging the patient's position with skilful hands while he talked Then he asked for paper and wrote a prescription.

"Nothing more can be done for the present," he said. "You should put some ice on his head, and if he recovers consciousness, so as to speak before I come back, observe what he says. He may be in a delirium, or he may talk quite rationally. One cannot tell Send for this medicine and give it to him if he is conscious. Otherwise, only keep his head cool. I will come back early in the evening. You are not hurt yourself?" he inquired, looking at Gianbattista curiously.

"No; I am badly shaken, and my hands are a little cut—that is all," answered the young man.

"What a beautiful thing youth is!" observed the surgeon philosophically, as he went away.

Gianbattista remained alone in the sick-room, seated upon his chair by the head of the bed. With anxious interest and attention he watched the expressionless face as the heavy breath came and went between the parted lips. In the distance he could hear the sobbing and incoherent talk of the two women, as the doctor explained to them Paolo's condition, but he was now too much dazed to give any thought to them. It seemed to him that Don Paolo had sacrificed his life for him, and that he had no other duty than to sit beside the bed and watch his friend. All the impressions of the afternoon were very much confused, and the shock of the fall had told upon his nerves far more severely than he had at first realised. His limbs ached and his hands pained him; at the same time he felt dizzy, and the outline of Don Paolo's face grew indistinct as he watched it. He was roused by the entry of Lucia, who had hastily laid aside her hat. Her face was pale, and her dark eyes were swollen with tears; her hair was in disorder and was falling about her neck. Gianbattista instinctively rose and put his arm about the girl's waist as they stood together and looked at the sick man. He felt that it was his duty to comfort her.

"The doctor thinks he may get well," he said.

"Who knows," she answered tearfully, and shook her head, "Oh, Tista, he was our best friend!"

"It was in trying to save me—" said the young fellow. But he got no further. The words stuck in his throat.

"If he lives I will be a son to him!" he added presently. "I will never leave him. But perhaps—perhaps he is too good to live, Lucia!"

"He must not die. I will take care of him," answered Lucia. "You must pray for him, Tista, and I will—we all will!"

"Eh! I will try, but I don't understand that kind of thing as well as you," said Gianbattista dolefully. "If you think it is of any use—"

"Of course it is of use, my heart; do not doubt it," replied the young girl gravely. Then her features suddenly quivered, she turned away, and, hiding her face on the pillow beside the priest's unconscious, head, she sobbed as though her heart would break. Gianbattista knelt down at her side and put his arm round her neck, whispering lovingly in her ear.

The day was fading, and the last glow of the sun in the south-western sky came through the small window at the other end of the narrow room, illuminating the simple furniture, the white bed coverings, the upturned face of the injured man, and the two young figures that knelt at the bedside. It was Gianbattista's room, and there was little enough in it. The bare bricks, with only a narrow bit of green drugget by the bed, the plain deal table before the window, the tiny round mirror set in lead, at which the apprentice shaved himself, the crazy old chest of drawers—that was all. The whitewashed walls were relieved by two or three drawings of chalices and other church vessels, the colour of the gold or silver, and of the gems, washed into one half of the design and the other side left in black and white. A little black cross hung above the bedstead, with a bit of an olive branch nailed over it—a reminiscence of the last Palm Sunday. There were two nails in another part of the room, on which some old clothes were hung—that was all. But the deep light of the failing day shed a peaceful halo aver everything, and touched the coarse details of a hardworking existence with the divine light of Heaven.

Lucia's sobbing ceased after a while, and, as the sunset faded into twilight and dusk, the silence grew more profound; the sick man's breathing became lighter, as though in his unconsciousness he were beginning to rest after the day in which he had endured so much. From the sitting-room beyond the short passage the sound of Maria Luisa's voice, moaning in concert with old Assunta, gradually diminished till they were heard only at intervals, and at last ceased altogether. The household of Marzio Pandolfi was hushed in the presence of a great sorrow, and awed by the anticipation of a great misfortune.


Marzio, in ignorance of all that was happening at the church, continued to work in the solitude of his studio, and the current of his thoughts flowed on in the same channel. He tried to force his attention upon the details of the design he meditated against his brother's life, and for some time he succeeded. But another influence had begun to work upon his brain, since the moment when he had been frightened by the sound behind him while he was examining the hole beneath the strong box. He would not own to himself that such a senseless fear could have produced a permanent impression on him, and yet he felt disturbed and unsettled, unaccountably discomposed, and altogether uncomfortable. He could not help looking round from time to time at the door, and more than once his eyes rested for several seconds upon the safe, while a slight shiver ran through his body and seemed to chill his fingers.

But he worked on in spite of all this. The habit of the chisel was not to be destroyed by the fancied scare of a moment, and though his eyes wandered now and then, they came back to the silver statue as keen as ever. A little touch with the steel at one point, a little burnishing at another, the accentuation of a line, the deepening of a shadow—he studied every detail with a minute and scrupulous care which betrayed his love for the work he was doing.

And yet the uneasiness grew upon him. He felt somehow as though Paolo were present in the room with him, watching him over his shoulder, suggesting improvements to be made, in that voice of his which now rang distinctly in the artist's ear. His imagination worked morbidly, and he thought of Paolo standing beside him, ordering him to do this or that against his will, until he began to doubt his own judgment in regard to what he was doing. He wondered whether he should feel the same thing when Paolo was dead. Again he looked behind him, and the idea that he was not alone gained force. Nevertheless the room was bright, brighter indeed in the afternoon than it ever was in the morning, for the window was towards the south, and though the first rays of the sun reached it at about eleven in the morning, the buildings afterwards darkened it again until the sun was in the west. Moreover to-day, the weather had been changeable, and it had rained a little about noon. Now the air was again clear, and the workshop was lit up so that the light penetrated even to the ancient cobwebs in the corners, and touched the wax models and casts on the shelves, and gilded the old wood of the door opposite with rich brown gold. Marzio had a curtain of dusty grey linen which he drew across the lower part of the window to keep the sunshine off his work.

He was impatient with himself, and annoyed by the persistency of the impression that Paolo was in some way present in the place. As though to escape from it by braving it he set himself resolutely to consider the expediency of destroying his brother. The first quick impulse in the morning had developed to a purpose in the afternoon. He had constructed the probable occurrences out of the materials of his imagination, and had done it so vividly as to frighten himself. The fright had in some measure cooled his intention, and had been now replaced by a new element in his thoughts, by the apprehension for the future if the deed were accomplished. He began to speculate upon what would happen afterwards, wondering whether by any means the murder could be discovered, and if in that case it could ever be traced to him.

At the first faint suggestion that such a thing as he was devising could possibly have another issue than he had supposed, Marzio felt a cold sensation in his heart, and his thoughts took a different direction. It was all simple enough. To get Paolo into the workshop alone—a blow—the concealment of the dead body until night—then the short three hundred yards with the hand-cart—it seemed very practicable. Yes, but if by any chance he should meet a policeman under those low trees in the Piazza de' Branca, what would happen? A man with a hand-cart, and with something shapeless upon the hand-cart, in the dark, hurrying towards the river—such a man would excite the suspicions of a policeman. Marzio might be stopped and asked what he was taking away. He would answer—what would he answer in such a case? The hand-cart would be examined and found to contain a dead priest. Besides, he reflected that the wheels would make a terrible clatter in the silent streets at night. Of course he might go out and walk down to the river first and see if there was anybody in the way, but even then he could not be sure of finding no one when he returned with his burden.

But there was the cellar, after all. He could go down in the night and bury his brother's body there. No one ever went down, not even he himself. Who would suspect the place? It would be a ghastly job, the chiseller thought. He fancied how it would be in the cold, damp vault with a lantern—the white face of the murdered man. No, he shrank from thinking of it. It was too horrible to be thought of until it should be absolutely necessary. But the place was a good one.

And then when Paolo was buried deep under the damp stones, who would be the first to ask for him? For two or three days no one would be much surprised if he did not come to the house. Marzio would say that he had met him in the street, and that Paolo had excused himself for not coming, on the ground of extreme pressure of work. But the Cardinal, whom he served as secretary, would ask for the missing man. He would be the first. The Cardinal would be told that Paolo had not slept at home, in his lodging high up in the old palace, and he would send at once to Marzio's house to know where his secretary was. Well, he might send, Marzio would answer that he did not know, and the matter would end there.

It would be hard to sit calmly at the bench all day with Gianbattista at his side. He would probably look very often at the iron-bound box. Gianbattista would notice that, and in time he would grow curious, and perhaps explore the cellar. It would be a miserable ending to such a drama to betray himself by his own weakness after it was all done, and Paolo was gone for ever—a termination unworthy of Marzio, the strong-minded freethinker. To kill a priest, and then be as nervous and conscious as a boy in a scrape! The chiseller tried to laugh aloud in his old way, but the effort was ineffectual, and ended in a painful twisting of the lips, accompanied by a glance at the corner. It would not do; he was weak, and was forced to submit to the humiliation of acknowledging the fact to himself. With a bitter scorn of his incapacity, he began to wonder whether he could ever get so far as to kill Paolo in the first instance. He foresaw that if he did kill him, he could never get rid of him afterwards.

Where do people go when they die? The question rose suddenly in the mind of the unbeliever, and seemed to demand an answer. He had answered often enough over a pint of wine at the inn, with Gaspare Carnesecchi the lawyer and the rest of his friends. Nowhere. That was the answer, clear enough. When a man dies he goes to the ground, as a slaughtered ox to the butcher's stall, or a dead horse to the knacker's. That is the end of him, and it is of no use asking any more questions. You might as well ask what becomes of the pins that are lost by myriads of millions, to the weight of many tons in a year. You might as well inquire what becomes of anything that is old, or worn out, or broken. A man is like anything else, an agglomeration of matter, capable of a few more tricks than a monkey, and capable of a few less than a priest. He dies, and is swallowed up by the earth and gives no more trouble. These were the answers Marzio was accustomed to give to the question, "Where do people go to when they die?" Hitherto they had satisfied him, as they appear to satisfy a very small minority of idiots.

But what would became of Paolo when Marzio had killed him? Well, in time his body would become earth, that was all. There was something else, however. Marzio was conscious to certainty that Paolo would in some way or other be at his elbow ever afterwards, just as he seemed to feel his presence this afternoon in the workshop. What sort of presence would it be? Marzio could not tell, but he knew he should feel it. It did not matter whether it were real to others or not, it would be too real to him. He could never get rid of the sensation; it would haunt him and oppress him for the rest of his life, and he should have no peace.

How could it, if it were not a real thing? Even the priests said that the spirits of dead men did not come back to earth; how much more impossible must it be in Marzio's view, since he denied that man had a soul. It would then only be the effect of his imagination recalling constantly the past deed, and a thing which only existed in imagination did not exist at all. If it did not exist, it could not be feared by a sensible man. Consequently there was nothing to fear.

The conclusion contradicted the given facts from which he had argued, and the chiseller was puzzled. For the first time his method of reasoning did not satisfy him, and he tried to find out the cause. Was it, he asked to himself, because there lingered in his mind some early tradition of the wickedness of doing murder? Since there was no soul, there was no absolute right and wrong, and everything must be decided by the standard of expediency. It was a mistake to allow people to murder each other openly, of course, because people of less intellectual capacity would take upon themselves to judge such cases in their own way. But provided that public morality, the darling of the real freethinker, were not scandalised, there would be no inherent wrong in doing away with Paolo. On the contrary, his death would be a benefit to the community at large, and an advantage to Marzio in particular. Not a pecuniary advantage either, for in Marzio's strange system there would have been an immorality in murdering Paolo for his money if he had ever had any, though it seemed right enough to kill him for an idea. That is, to a great extent, the code of those persons who believe in nothing but what they call great ideas. The individuals who murdered the Czar would doubtless have scrupled to rob a gentleman in the street of ten francs. The same reasoning developed itself in Marzio's brain. If his brothel had been rich, it would have been a crime to murder him for his wealth. It was no crime to murder him for an idea. Marzio said to himself that to get rid of Paolo would be to emancipate himself and his family from the rule and interference of a priest, and that such a proceeding was only the illustration on a small scale of what he desired for his country; consequently it was just, and therefore it ought to be done.

Unfortunately for his logic, the continuity of his deductions was blocked by a consideration which he had not anticipated. That consideration could only be described as fear for the future, and it had been forcibly thrust upon him by the fright he had received while he was examining the hole in the floor. In order to neutralise it, Marzio had tried the experiment of braving what he considered to be a momentary terror by obstinately studying the details of the plan he intended to execute. To his surprise he found that he returned to the same conclusion as before. He came back to that unaccountable fear of the future as surely as a body thrown upwards falls again to the earth. He went over it all in his mind again, twice, three times, twenty times. As often as he reached the stage at which he imagined Paolo dead, hidden, and buried in a cellar, the same shiver passed through him as he glanced involuntarily behind him. Why? What power could a dead body possibly exercise over a living man in the full possession of his senses?

Here was something which Marzio could not understand, but of which he was made aware by his own feelings. The difficulty only increased in magnitude as he faced it, considered it, and tried to view it from all its horrible aspects. But he could not overcome it. He might laugh at the existence of the soul and jest about the future state after death; he could not escape from the future in this life if he did the deed he contemplated. He should see the dead man's face by day and night as long as he lived.

This forced conclusion was in logical accordance with his original nature and developed character, for it was the result of that economical, cautious disposition which foresees the consequences of action and guides itself accordingly. Even in the moment when he had nearly killed Paolo that morning he had not been free from this tendency. In the instant when he had raised the tool to strike he had thought of the means of disposing of the body and of hindering suspicion. The panorama of coming circumstances had presented itself to his mind with the rapidity of a flash of lightning, but in that infinitesimal duration of time Paolo had turned round, and the opportunity was gone. His mind had worked quickly, but it had not gone to the end of its reasoning. Now in the solitude of his studio he had found leisure to follow out the results to the last link of the chain. He saw clearly that even if he eluded discovery after the crime, he could never escape from the horror of his dead brother's presence.

He laid the silver figure of the Christ straight before him upon the leathern pad, and looked intently at it, while his hands played idly with the tools upon the table. His deep-set, heavy eyes gazed fixedly at the wonderful face, with an expression which had not yet been there. There was no longer any smile upon his thin lips, and his dark emaciated features were restful and quiet, almost solemn in their repose.

"I am glad I did not do it," he said aloud after some minutes.

Still he gazed at his work, and the impression stole over him that but for a slight thing he might yet have killed his brother. If he had left the figure more securely propped upon the pad, it could not have slipped upon the bench; it could not have made that small distinct sound just as he was examining the place which was to have been his brother's grave; he would not have been suddenly frightened; he would not have gone over the matter in his mind as he had done, from the point of view of a future fear; he would have waited anxiously for another opportunity, and when it presented itself he would have struck the blow, and Paolo would have been dead, if not to-day, to-morrow. There would have been a search which might or might not have resulted in the discovery of the body. Then there would have been, the heartrending grief of his wife, of Lucia, and the black suspicious looks of Gianbattista. The young man had heard him express a wish that Paolo might disappear. His home would have been a hell, instead of being emancipated from tyranny as he had at first imagined. Discovery and conviction would have come at last, the galleys for life for himself, dishonour and contempt for his family.

He remembered Paolo's words as he stood contemplating the crucifix just before that moment which had nearly been his last. Qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem—"Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven." In a strange revulsion of feeling Marzio applied the words to himself, with an odd simplicity that was at once pathetic and startling.

"If Christ had not died," he said to himself, "I should not have made this crucifix. If I had not made it, it would not have frightened me. I should have killed my brother. It has saved me. 'For us men and for our salvation'—those are the words—for my salvation, it is very strange. Poor Paolo! If he knew to what he owed his life he would be pleased. Who can believe such things? Who would have believed this if I had told it? And yet it is true."

For some minutes still he gazed at the figure. Then he shook himself as though to rouse his mind from a trance, and took up his tools. He did not glance behind him again, and, for the time at least, his nervous dislike of the box in the corner seemed to have ceased. He laboured with patient care, touching and re-touching, believing that each tap of the hammer should be the last, and yet not wholly satisfied.

The light waned, and he took down the curtain to admit the last glows of the evening. He could do no more, art itself could have done no more to beautify and perfect the masterpiece that lay upon the cushion before him. The many hours he had spent in putting the last finish upon the work had produced their result. His hand had imparted something to the features of the dying head which had not been there before, and as he stood over the bench he knew that he had surpassed his greatest work. He went and fetched the black cross from the shelf, and polished its smooth surface carefully with a piece of silk. Then he took the figure tenderly in his hands and laid it in its position. The small screws turned evenly in the threads, fitting closely into their well-concealed places, and the work was finished. Marzio placed the whole crucifix upon the bench and sat down to look at it.

It made a strong impression upon him, this thing of his own hands, and again he remained a long time resting his chin upon his folded fingers and gazing up at the drooping lids. The shadows lay softly on the modelled silver, so softly that the metal itself seemed to tremble and move, and in his reverie Marzio could almost have expected the divine eyes to open and look into his face. And gradually the shadows deepened more and more, and gathered into gloom till in the dark the black arms of the cross scarcely stood out from the darkness, and in the last lingering twilight he could see only the clear outline of the white head and outstretched hands, that seemed to emit a soft radiance gathered from the brightness of the departed day.

Marzio struck a match and lit his lamp. His thoughts were so wholly absorbed that he had not remembered the workmen, nor wondered why they had not come back. After all, most of them lived in the direction of the church, and if they had finished their work late they would very probably go home without returning to the shop. The chiseller wrapped the crucifix in the old white cloth, and laid it in its plain wooden box, but he did not screw the cover down, merely putting it on loosely so that it could be removed in a moment. He laid his tools in order, mechanically, as he did every evening, and then he extinguished the light and made his way to the door, carrying the box under his arm.

The boy who alone had remained at work had lighted a tallow candle, and was sitting dangling his heels from his stool as Marzio came out.

"Still here!" exclaimed the artist.

"Eh! You did not tell me to go," answered the lad.

Marzio locked the heavy outer door and crossed over to his house, while the boy went whistling down the street in the dusk. Slowly the artist mounted the stairs, pondering, as he went, on the many emotions of the day, and at last repeating his conclusion, that he was glad that he had not killed Paolo.

By a change of feeling which he did not wholly realise, he felt for the first time in many years that he would be glad to see his brother alive and well. He had that day so often fancied him dead, lying on the floor of the workshop, or buried in a dark corner of the cellar, that the idea of meeting him, calm and well as ever, had something refreshing in it. It was like the waking from a hideous dream of evil to find that the harm is still undone, to experience that sense of unutterable relief which every one knows when the dawn suddenly touches the outlines of familiar objects in the room, and dispels in an instant the visions of the night.

Paolo might not come that evening, but at least Maria Luisa and Lucia would speak of him, and it would be a comfort to hear his name spoken aloud. Marzio's step quickened with the thought, and in another moment he was at the door. To his surprise it was opened before he could ring, and old Assunta came forward with her wrinkled fingers raised to her lips.

"Hist! hist!" she whispered. "It goes a little better—or at least—"

"What? Who?" asked Marzio, instinctively whispering also.

"Eh! You have not heard? Don Paolo—they have killed him!"

"Paolo!" exclaimed Marzio, staggering and leaning against the door-post.

"He is not dead—not dead yet at least," went on the old woman in low, excited tones. "He was in the church with Tista—a ladder—"

Marzio did not stop to hear more, but pushed past Assunta with his burden under his arm, and entered the passage. The door at the end was open, and he saw his wife standing in the bright light in the sitting-room, anxiously looking towards him as though she had heard his coming.

"For God's sake, Gigia," he said, addressing her by her old pet name, "tell me quickly what has happened!"

The Signora Pandolfi explained as well as she could, frequently giving way to her grief in passionate sobs. She was incoherent, but the facts were so simple that Marzio understood them. He was standing by the table, his hand resting upon the wooden case he had brought, and his face was very pale.

"Let me understand," he said at last. "Tista was on the ladder. The ladder slipped, Paolo ran to catch it, and it fell on him. He is badly hurt, but not dead; is that it, Gigia?"

Maria Luisa nodded in the midst of a fit of weeping.

"The surgeon has been, you say? Yes. And where is Paolo lying?"

"In Tista's room," sobbed his wife. "They are with him now."

Marzio stood still and hesitated. He was under the influence of the most violent emotion, and his face betrayed something of what he felt. The idea of Paolo's death had played a tremendous part in his thoughts during the whole day, and he had firmly believed that he had got rid of that idea, and was to realise in meeting his brother that it had all been a dream. The news he now heard filled him with horror. It seemed as if the intense wish for Paolo's death had in some way produced a material result without his knowledge; it was as though he had killed his brother by a thought—as though he had had a real share in his death.

He could hardly bear to go and see the wounded man, so strong was the impression that gained possession of him. His fancy called up pictures of Paolo lying wounded in bed, and he dreaded to face the sight. He turned away from the table and began to walk up and down the little room. In a corner his foot struck against something—the drawing board on which he had begun to sketch the night before. Marzio took it up and brought it to the light. Maria Luisa stared at him sorrowfully, as though reproaching him with indifference in the general calamity. But Marzio looked intently at the drawing. It was only a sketch, but it was very beautifully done. He saw that his ideal was still the same, and that upon the piece of paper he had only reproduced the features he had chiselled ten years ago, with an added beauty of expression, with just those additions which to-day he had made upon the original. The moment he was sure of the fact he laid aside the board and opened the wooden case.

Maria Luisa, who was very far from guessing what an intimate connection existed between the crucifix and Paolo in her husband's mind, looked on with increasing astonishment as he took out the beautiful object and Bet it upon the table in the light. But when she saw it her admiration overcame her sorrow for one moment.

"Dio mio! What a miracle!" she exclaimed.

"A miracle?" repeated her husband, with a strange expression. "Who knows? Perhaps!"

At that moment Gianbattista and Lucia entered through the open door, and stood together watching the scene without understanding what was passing. The young girl recognised the crucifix at once. She supposed that her father did not realise Paolo's condition, and was merely showing the masterpiece to her mother.

"That is the one I saw," she whispered to Gianbattista. The young man said nothing, but fixed his eyes upon the cross.

"Papa," said Lucia timidly, "do you know?"

"Yes. Is he alone?" asked Marzio in a tone which was not like his own.

"There is Assunta," answered the young girl.

"I will go to him," said the artist, and without further words he lifted the crucifix from the table and went out. His face was very grave, and his features had something in them that none of the three had seen before—something almost of grandeur. Gianbattista and Lucia followed him.

"I will be alone with him," said Marzio, looking back at the pair as he reached the door of the sick chamber. He entered and a moment afterwards old Assunta came out and shuffled away, holding her apron to her eyes.

Marzio went in. There was a small shaded lamp on the deal table, which illuminated the room with a soft light. Marzio felt that he could not trust himself at first to look at his brother's face. He set the crucifix upon the old chest of drawers, and put the lamp near it. Then he remained standing before it with his back to the bed, and his hands in the pockets of his blouse. He could hear the regular breathing which told that Paolo was still alive. For a long time he could not turn round; it was as though an unseen power held him motionless in his position. He looked at the crucifix.

"If he wakes," he thought, "he will see it. It will comfort him if he is going to die!"

With his back still turned towards the bed, he moved to one side, until he thought that Paolo could see what he had brought, if consciousness returned. Very slowly, as though fearing some horrible sight, he changed his position and looked timidly in the direction of the sick man. At last he saw the pale upturned face, and was amazed that such an accident should have produced so little change in the features. He came and stood beside the bed.

Paolo had not moved since the surgeon had left; he was lying on his back, propped by pillows so that his face was towards the light. He was pale now, for the flush that had been in his cheeks had subsided; his eyelids, which had been half open, had dropped and closed, so that he seemed to be sleeping peacefully, ready to wake at the slightest sound.

Marzio stood and looked at him. This was the man he had hated through so many years of boyhood and manhood—the man who had faced him and opposed him at every step—who had stood up boldly before him in his own house to defend what he believed to be right. This was Paolo, whom he had nearly killed that morning. Marzio's right hand felt the iron tool in the pocket of his blouse, and his fingers trembled as he touched it, while his long arms twitched nervously from the shoulder to the elbow. He took it out, looked at it, and at the sick man's face. He asked himself whether he could think of using it as he had meant to, and then he let it fall upon the bit of green drugget by the bedside.

That was Paolo—it would not need any sharpened weapon to kill him now. A little pressure on the throat, a pillow held over his face for a few moments, and it would all be over. And what for? To be pursued for ever by that same white face? No. It was not worth while, it had never been worth while, even were that all. But there was something else to be considered. Paolo might now die of his accident, in his bed. There would be no murder done in that case, no haunting horror of a presence, no discovery to be feared, since there would have been no evil. Let him die, if he was dying!

But that was not all either. What would it be when Paolo should be dead? Well, he had his ideas, of course. They were mistaken ideas. Were they? Perhaps, who could tell? But he was not a bad man, this Paolo. He had never tried to wring money out of Marzio, as some people did. On the contrary, Marzio still felt a sense of humiliation when he thought how much he owed to the kindness of this man, his brother, lying here injured to death, and powerless to help himself or to save himself. Powerless? yes—utterly so. How easy it would be, after all, to press a pillow on the unconscious face. There would probably not even be a struggle. Who should save him, or who could know of it? And yet Marzio did not want to do it, as he had wished to a few hours ago. As he looked down on the pale head he realised that he did not want Paolo to die. Standing on the sharp edge of the precipice where life ends and breaks off, close upon the unfathomable depths of eternity, himself firmly standing and fearing no fall, but seeing his brother slipping over the brink, he would put out his hand to save him, to draw him back. He would not have Paolo die.

He gazed upon the calm features, and he knew that he feared lest they should be still for ever. The breath came more softly, more and more faintly. Marzio thought. He bent down low and tried to feel the warm air as it issued from the lips. His fears grew to terror as the life seemed to ebb away from the white face. In the agony of his apprehension, Marzio inadvertently laid his hand upon the injured shoulder, unconsciously pressing his weight upon the place.

With a faint sigh the priest's eyes opened and seemed to gaze for a moment on the crucifix standing in the bright light of the lamp. An expression of wonderful gentleness and calm overspread the refined features.

"Qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis."

The words came faintly from the dying man's lips, the last syllables scarcely audible in the intense stillness. A deathly pallor crept quickly over the smooth forehead and thin cheeks. Marzio looked for one instant more, and then with a loud cry fell upon his knees by the bedside, his long arms extended across his brother's body. The strong hot tears fell upon the bed coverings, and his breast heaved with passionate sobbing.

He did not see that Paolo opened his eyes at the sound. He did not notice the rush of feet in the passage without, as Maria Luisa and Lucia and Gianbattista ran to the door, followed by old Assunta holding up her apron to her eyes.

"Courage, Sor Marzio," said Gianbattista, drawing the artist back from the bed. "You will disturb him. Do you not see that he is conscious at last?"

Lucia was arranging the pillows under Paolo's head, and Maria Luisa was crying with joy. Marzio sprang to his feet and stared as though he could not believe what he saw. Paolo turned his head and looked kindly at his brother.

"Courage, Marzio," he said, "I have been asleep, I believe—what has happened to me? Why are you all crying?"

Marzio's tears broke out again, mingled with incoherent words of joy. In his sudden happiness he clasped the two persons nearest to him, and hugged them and kissed them. These two chanced to be Lucia and Gianbattista. Paolo smiled, but the effort of speaking had tired him.

"Well," said Marzio at last, with a kinder smile than had been on his face for many a day—"very well, children. For Paolo's sake you shall have your own way."

Half an hour later the surgeon made his visit and assured them all that there was no serious injury, nor any further danger to be feared. The patient had been very badly stunned, that was all. Marzio remained by his brother's side.

"You see, Tista," said Lucia when they were in the sitting-room, "I was quite right about the crucifix and the rest."

"Of course," assented the Signora Pandolfi, though she did not understand the allusion in the least. "Of course you are all of you right. But what a day this has been, cari miei! What a day! Dear, dear!" She spread out her fat hands upon her knees, looking the picture of solid contentment.


* * * * *



My Beloved Wife



The hall of the banquets was made ready for the feast in the palace of Babylon. That night Belshazzar the king would drink wine with a thousand of his lords, and be merry before them; and everything was made ready.

From end to end of the mighty nave, the tables of wood, overlaid with gold and silver, stood spread with those things which the heart of man can desire; with cups of gold and of glass and of jade; with great dishes heaped high with rare fruits and rarer flowers; and over all, the last purple rays of the great southern sun came floating through the open colonnades of the porch, glancing on the polished marbles, tingeing with a softer hue the smooth red plaster of the walls, and lingering lovingly on the golden features and the red-gold draperies of the vast statue that sat on high and overlooked the scene.

On his head the head-dress of thrice royal supremacy, in his right hand and his left the sceptre of power and the winged wheel of immortality and life, beneath his feet the bowed necks of prostrate captives;—so sat the kingly presence of great Nebuchadnezzar, as waiting to see what should come to pass upon his son; and the perfume of the flowers and the fruits and the rich wine came up to his mighty nostrils, and he seemed to smile there in the evening sunlight, half in satisfaction, half in scorn.

On each side of the great building, in the aisles and wings, among the polished pillars of marble thronged the serving-men, bearing ever fresh spices and flowers and fruits, wherewith to deck the feast, whispering together in a dozen Indian, Persian and Egyptian dialects, or in the rich speech of those nobler captives whose pale faces and eagle eyes stood forth everywhere in strong contrast with the coarser features and duskier skins of their fellows in servitude,—the race not born to dominate, but born to endure even to the end. These all mingled together in the strange and broken reflections of the evening light, and here and there the purple dye of the sun tinged the white tunic of some poor slave to as fair a colour as a king's son might wear.

On this side and on that of the tables that were spread for the feast, stood great candlesticks, as tall as the height of two men, tapering from the thickness and heavy carving below to the fineness and delicate tracery above, and bearing upon them cups of bronze, each having its wick steeped in fine oil mixed with wax. Moreover, in the midst of the hall, where the seat of the king was put upon a raised floor, the pillars stood apart for a space, so that there was a chamber, as it were, from the wall on the right to the wall on the left, roofed with great carved rafters; and the colour of the walls was red,—a deep and glorious red that seemed to make of the smooth plaster a sheet of precious marble. Beyond, beneath the pillars, the panels of the aisles were pictured and made many-coloured with the story of Nebuchadnezzar the king, his conquests and his feasts, his captives and his courtiers, in endless train upon the splendid wall. But where the king should sit in the midst of the hall there were neither pillars nor paintings; only the broad blaze of the royal colour, rich and even. Beside the table also stood a great lamp, taller and more cunningly wrought than the rest,—the foot of rare marble and chiselled bronze and the lamp above of pure gold from southern Ophir. But it was not yet kindled, for the sun was not set and the hour for the feast was not fully come.

At the upper end of the hall, before the gigantic statue of wrought gold, there was an open space, unencumbered by tables, where the smooth, polished marble floor came to view in all its rich design and colour. Two persons, entering the hall with slow steps, came to this place and stood together, looking up at the face of the golden king.

Between the two there was the gulf of a lifetime. The one was already beyond the common limit of age, while he who stood beside him was but a fair boy of fourteen summers.

The old man was erect still, and his snowy hair and beard grew like a lion's mane about his massive brow and masterful face. The deep lines of thought, graven deeper by age, followed the noble shaping of his brows in even course, and his dark eyes still shot fire, as piercing the bleared thickness of time to gaze boldly on the eternity beyond. His left hand gathered the folds of a snow-white robe around him, while in his right he grasped a straight staff of ebony and ivory, of fine workmanship, marvellously polished, whereon were wrought strange sayings in the Israelitish manner of writing. The old man stood up to his noble height, and looked from the burnished face of the king's image to the eyes of the boy beside him, in silence, as though urging his young companion to speak for him the thoughts that filled the hearts of both.

The youth spoke not, nor gave any sign, but stood with folded hands and gazed up to the great features of Nebuchadnezzar.

He was but fourteen years of age, tall and delicately made, full of the promise of a graceful and elastic power, fine of skin, and instinct with the nervous strength of a noble and untainted race. His face was fair and white, tinged with faint colour, and his heavy golden hair fell in long curls upon his shoulders, thick and soft with the silken fineness of early youth. His delicate features were straight and noble, northern rather than Oriental in their type—supremely calm and thoughtful, almost godlike in their young restfulness. The deep blue eyes were turned upward with a touch of sadness, but the broad forehead was as marble, and the straight marking of the brows bounded it and divided it from the face. He wore the straight white tunic, edged about with fine embroideries of gold and gathered at the waist with a rich belt, while his legs were covered with wide Persian trousers wrought in many colours of silk upon fine linen. He wore also a small cap of linen, stiffened to a point and worked with a cunning design in gold and silver. But the old man's head was covered only by the thick masses of his snowy hair, and his wide white mantle hid the details of his dress from view.

Again he glanced from the statue to his companion's eyes, and at last he spoke, in a deep smooth voice, in the Hebrew tongue.

"Nebuchadnezzar the king is gathered to his fathers, and his son also, and Nabonnedon Belshazzar reigns in his stead, yet have I endured to this day, in Babylon, these threescore and seven years, since Nebuchadnezzar the king destroyed our place upon the earth and led us away captive. Unto this day, Zoroaster, have I endured, and yet a little longer shall I stand and bear witness for Israel."

The old man's eyes flashed, and his strong aquiline features assumed an expression of intense vitality and life. Zoroaster turned to him and spoke softly, almost sadly:

"Say, O Daniel, prophet and priest of the Lord, why does the golden image seem to smile to-day? Are the times accomplished of thy vision which thou sawest in Shushan, in the palace, and is the dead king glad? I think his face was never so gentle before to look upon,—surely he rejoices at the feast, and the countenance of his image is gladdened."

"Nay, rather then should his face be sorrowful for the destruction of his seed and of his kingdom," answered the prophet somewhat scornfully. "Verily the end is at hand, and the stones of Babylon shall no longer cry out for the burden of the sins of Belshazzar, and the people call upon Bel to restore unto life the King Nebuchadnezzar; nay, or to send hither a Persian or a Mede to be a just ruler in the land."

"Hast thou read it in the stars, or have thine eyes seen these things in the visions of the night, my master?" The boy came nearer to the aged prophet and spoke in low earnest tones. But Daniel only bent his head, till his brow touched his ebony staff, and so he remained, deep in thought.

"For I also have dreamed,"—continued Zoroaster, after a short pause,—"and my dream took hold of me, and I am sorry and full of great weariness. Now this is the manner of my dreaming." He stopped and glanced down the great nave of the hall through the open porch at the other end. The full glory of the red sun, just touching the western plain, streamed upon his face and made the tables, the preparations and the crowd of busy serving-men look like black shadows between him and the light. But Daniel leaned upon his staff and spoke no word, nor moved from his position.

"I saw in my dream," said Zoroaster, "and there was darkness; and upon the winds of the night arose the sound of war, and the cry and the clash of battle, mighty men striving one with another for the mastery and the victory, which should be to the stronger. And I saw again, and behold it was morning, and the people were led away captive, by tens, and by hundreds, and by thousands, and the maidens also and young women into a far country. And I looked, and the face of one of the maidens was as the face of the fairest among the daughters of thy people. Then my heart yearned for her, and I would have followed after into the captivity; but darkness came upon me, and I saw her no more. Therefore am I troubled and go heavily all the day."

He ceased and the cadence of the boy's voice trembled and was sad. The sun set out of sight beneath the plain, and from far off a great sound of music came in upon the evening breeze.

Daniel raised his snowy head and gazed keenly on his young companion, and there was disappointment in his look.

"Wouldst thou be a prophet?" he asked, "thou that dreamest of fair maidens and art disquieted for the love of a woman? Thinkest thou, boy, that a woman shall help thee when thou art grown to be a man, or that the word of the Lord dwelleth in vanity? Prophesy, and interpret thy vision, if so be that thou art able to interpret it. Come, let us depart, for the king is at hand, and the night shall be given over for a space to the rioters and the mirth-makers, with whom our portion is not. Verily I also have dreamed a dream. Let us depart."

The venerable prophet stood up to his height, and grasping his staff in his right hand, began to lead the way from the hall. Zoroaster laid hold of him by the arm, as though entreating him to remain.

"Speak, master," he cried earnestly, "and declare to me thy dream, and see whether it accords with mine, and whether there shall be darkness and rumour of war in the land."

But Daniel the prophet would not stay to speak, but went out of the hall, and Zoroaster the Persian youth went with him, pondering deeply on the present and on the future, and on the nature of the vision he had seen; and made fearful by the silence of his friend and teacher.

The darkness fell upon the twilight, and within the hall the lamps and candlesticks were kindled and gave out warm light and rare perfumes. All down the endless rows of tables, the preparations for the feast were ready; and from the gardens without, strains of music came up ever stronger and nearer, so that the winged sounds seemed to come into the vast building and hover above the tables and seats of honour, preparing the way for the guests. Nearer and nearer came the harps and the pipes and the trumpets and the heavy reed-toned bagpipes, and above all the strong rich chorus of the singers chanting high the evening hymn of praise to Bel, god of sunlight, honoured in his departing, as in his coming, with the music of the youngest and most tuneful voices in Shinar.

First came the priests of Bel, two and two, robed in their white tunics, loose white garments on their legs, the white mitre of the priestly order on their heads, and their great beards curled smooth and glossy as silk. In their midst, with stately dignity, walked their chief, his eyes upon the ground, his hands crossed upon his breast, his face like dark marble in the twilight. On either side, those who had officiated at the sacrifice, bore the implements of their service,—the knife, the axe, the cord, and the fire in its dish; and their hands were red with the blood of the victim lately slain. Grand, great men, mighty of body and broad of brow, were these priests of Bel,—strong with the meat and the wine of the offerings that were their daily portion, and confident in the faith of their ancient wisdom.

After the priests the musicians, one hundred chosen men of skill, making strange deep harmonies in a noble and measured rhythm, marching ten and ten abreast, in ten ranks; and as they came on, the light streaming from the porch of the palace caught their silver ornaments and the strange shapes of their instruments in broken reflections between the twilight and the glare of the lamps.

Behind these came the singers,—of young boys two hundred, of youths a hundred, and of bearded men also a hundred; the most famous of all that sang praises to Bel in the land of Assur. Ten and ten they marched, with ordered ranks and step in time to the massive beat of the long-drawn measure.

_"Mighty to rule the day, great in his glory and the pride of his heat, Shooting great bolts of light into the dark earth, turning death into life, Making the seed to grow, strongly and fairly, high in furrow and field, Making the heart of man glad with his gladness, rideth over the dawn Bel, the prince, the king of kings.

"Hotly his flaming hair, streaming with brightness, and the locks of his beard Curl'd into clouds of heat, sweeping the heavens, spread all over the sky: Who shall abide his face, fearful and deadly, when he devours the land, Angry with man and beast, horribly raging, hungry for sacrifice? Bel, the prince, the king of kings.

"Striding his three great strides, out of the morning through the noon to the night, Cometh he down at last, ready for feasting, ready for sacrifice: Then doth he tread the wine, purple and golden, foaming deep in the west; Shinar is spread for him, spread as a table, Assur shall be his seat: Bel, the prince, the king of kings.

"Bring him the fresh-slain flesh, roast it with fire, with the savour of salt, Pour him the strength of wine, chalice and goblet, trodden for him alone: Raise him the song of songs, cry out in praises, cry out and supplicate That he may drink delight, tasting our off'ring, hearing our evening song: Bel, the prince, the king of kings.

"So, in the gentle night, when he is resting, peace descendeth on earth; High in the firmament, where his steps led him, gleam the tracks of his way: Where the day felt his touch, there the night also breaketh forth into stars, These are the flowers of heaven, garlands of blossoms, growing to weave his crown: Bel, the prince, the king of kings.

"Hail! thou king of the earth, hail! Belteshazzar, hail! and for ever live! Born of the gods on high, prince of the nations, ruling over the world: Thou art the son of Bel, full of his glory, king over death and life; Let all the people bow, tremble and worship, bow them down and adore The prince of Bel, the king of kings."_

As the musicians played and the singers sang, they divided their ranks and came and stood on each side of the broad marble staircase; and the priests had done so before them, but the chief priest stood alone on the lowest step.

Then, between the files of those who stood, advanced the royal procession, like a river of gold and purple and precious stones flowing between banks of pure white. Ten and ten, a thousand lords of Babylon marched in stately throng, and in their midst rode Belshazzar the king, high upon his coal-black steed, crowned with the great tiara of white linen and gold and jewels, the golden sceptre of the kingdom in his right hand. And after the lords and the king came a long procession of litters borne by stalwart slaves, wherein reclined the fairest women of all Assyria, bidden to the great feast. Last of all, the spearmen of the guard in armour all chased with gold, their mantles embroidered with the royal cognisance, and their beards trimmed and curled in the close soldier fashion, brought up the rear; a goodly company of men of war.

As the rich voices of the singers intoned the grand plain chant of the last stanza in the hymn, the king was in the middle of the open space at the foot of the staircase; there he drew rein and sat motionless on his horse, awaiting the end. As the ripe corn bends in its furrows to the wind, so the royal host around turned to the monarch, and fell upon their faces as the music died away at the signal of the high priest. With one consent the lords, the priests, the singers and the spearmen bowed and prostrated themselves on the ground; the bearers of the litters set down their burden while they did homage; and each of those beautiful women bent far forward, kneeling in her litter, and hid her head beneath her veil.

Only the king sat erect and motionless upon his steed, in the midst of the adoring throng. The light from the palace played strangely on his face, making the sneering smile more scornful upon his pale lips, and shading his sunken eyes with a darker shadow.

While you might count a score there was silence, and the faint evening breeze wafted the sweet smell of the roses from the gardens to the king's nostrils, as though even the earth would bring incense of adoration to acknowledge his tremendous power.

Then the host rose again and fell back on either side while the king rode to the staircase and dismounted, leading the way to the banquet; and the high priest followed him and all the ranks of the lords and princes and the ladies of Babylon, in their beauty and magnificence, went up the marble steps and under the marble porch, spreading then like a river, about the endless tables, almost to the feet of the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar. And presently, from beneath the colonnades a sound of sweet music stole out again and filled the air; the serving-men hurried hither and thither, the black slaves plied their palm-leaf fans behind each guest, and the banquet was begun.

Surely, a most glorious feast, wherein the hearts of the courtiers waxed merry, and the dark eyes of the Assyrian women shot glances sweeter than the sweetmeats of Egypt and stronger than the wine of the south to move the spirit of man. Even the dark king, wasted and hollow-eyed with too much pleasure-seeking, smiled and laughed,—sourly enough at first, it is true, but in time growing careless and merry by reason of his deep draughts. His hand trembled less weakly as the wine gave him back his lost strength, and more than once his fingers toyed playfully with the raven locks and the heavy earrings of the magnificent princess at his elbow. Some word of hers roused a thought in his whirling brain.

"Is not this day the feast of victories?" he cried in sudden animation; and there was silence to catch the king's words. "Is not this the day wherein my sire brought home the wealth of the Israelites, kept holy with feasting for ever? Bring me the vessels of the unbelievers' temple, that I may drink and pour out wine this night to Bel, the god of gods!"

The keeper of the treasure had anticipated the king's desire and had caused everything to be made ready; for scarcely had Belshazzar spoken when a long train of serving-men entered the hall of the banquet and came and stood before the royal presence, their white garments and the rich vessels they bore aloft standing vividly out against the deep even red of the opposite wall.

"Let the vessels be distributed among us," cried the king,—"to every man a cup or a goblet till all are served."

And so it was done, and the royal cup-bearer came and filled the huge chalice that the king held, and the serving-men hastened to fill all the cups and the small basins; while the lords and princes laughed at the strange shapes, and eyed greedily enough the thickness and the good workmanship of the gold and silver. And so each man and each woman had a vessel from the temple of Jerusalem wherein to drink to the glory of Bel the god and of Belshazzar his prince. And when all was ready, the king took his chalice in his two hands and stood up, and all that company of courtiers stood up with him, while a mighty strain of music burst through the perfumed air, and the serving-men showered flowers and sprinkled sweet odours on the tables.

Without stood the Angel of Death, whetting his sword upon the stones of Babylon. But Belshazzar held the chalice and spoke with a loud voice to the princes and the lords and the fair women that stood about the tables in the great hall:

"I, Belshazzar the king, standing in the hall of my fathers, do pour and drink this wine to the mighty majesty of Bel the great god, who lives for ever and ever; before whom the gods of the north and of the west and of the east and of the south are as the sand of the desert in the blast; at whose sight the vain deities of Egypt crumbled into pieces, and the God of the Israelites trembled and was made little in the days of Nebuchadnezzar my sire. And I command you, lords and princes of Babylon, you and your wives and your fair women, that ye also do pour wine and drink it, doing this homage to Bel our god, and to me, Belshazzar the king."

And so saying, he turned about to one side and spilled a few drops of wine upon the marble floor, and set the cup to his lips, facing the great throng of his guests; and he drank. But from all the banquet went up a great shout.

"Hail! king, live for ever! Hail! prince of Bel, live for ever! Hail! king of kings, live for ever!" Long and loud was the cry, ringing and surging through the pillars and up to the great carved rafters till the very walls seemed to rock and tremble with the din of the king's praise.

Slowly Belshazzar drained the cup to the dregs, while with half-closed eyes he listened to the uproar, and perhaps sneered to himself behind the chalice, as was his wont. Then he set the vessel down and looked up. But as he looked he staggered and turned pale, and would have fallen; he grasped the ivory chair behind him and stood trembling in every joint, and his knees knocking together, while his eyes seemed starting from his head, and all his face was changed and distorted with dreadful fear.

Upon the red plaster of the wall, over against the candlestick which shed its strong rays upon the fearful sight, the fingers of a vast hand moved and traced letters. Only the fingers could be seen, colossal and of dazzling brightness, and as they slowly did their work, huge characters of fire blazed out upon the dark red surface, and their lambent angry flame dazzled those who beheld, and the terror of terrors fell upon all the great throng; for they stood before Him whose shadow is immortality and death.

In a silence that could be felt, the dread hand completed its message and vanished out of sight, but the strange fire burned bright in the horrid characters of the writing that remained upon the wall.

This was the inscription in Chaldean letters:


Then at last the king found speech and shrieked aloud wildly, and he commanded that they should bring in all the astrologers, the Chaldeans and the diviners, for he was in great terror and he dreaded some fearful and imminent catastrophe.

"Whoever shall read this writing," he cried, his voice changed and broken, "and declare to me the meaning of it, shall be clothed in purple, and shall have a chain of gold about his neck and shall rule as the third in the kingdom."

Amidst the mighty confusion of fear, the wise men were brought in before the king.


In Ecbatana of Media Daniel dwelt in his extreme old age. There he built himself a tower within the seven-fold walls of the royal fortress, upon the summit of the hill, looking northward towards the forests of the mountains, and southward over the plain, and eastward to the river, and westward to Mount Zagros. His life was spent, and he was well-nigh a hundred years old. Seventeen years had passed since he had interpreted the fatal writing on the wall of the banquet-hall in Babylon in the night when Nabonnedon Belshazzar was slain, and the kingdom of the Assyrians destroyed for ever. Again and again invested with power and with the governorship of provinces, he had toiled unceasingly in the reigns of Cyrus and Cambyses, and though he was on the very boundary of possible lifetime, his brain was unclouded, and his eye keen and undimmed still. Only his grand figure was more bent and his step slower than before.

He dwelt in Ecbatana of the north, in the tower he had built for himself.[1] In the midst of the royal palaces of the stronghold he had laid the foundations duly to the north and south, and story upon story had risen, row upon row of columns, balcony upon balcony of black marble, sculptured richly from basement to turret, and so smooth and hard, that its polished corners and sides and ornaments glittered like black diamonds in the hot sun of the noonday, and cast back the moonbeams at night in a darkly brilliant reflection.

[Footnote 1: Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book x. chap. xi. 7.]

Far down below, in the gorgeous dwellings that filled the interior of the fortress, dwelt the kinsfolk of the aged prophet, and the families of the two Levites who had remained with Daniel and had chosen to follow him to his new home in Media rather than to return to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel, when Cyrus issued the writ for the rebuilding of the temple. There lived also in the palace Zoroaster, the Persian prince, being now in the thirty-first year of his age, and captain of the city and of the stronghold. And there, too, surrounded by her handmaidens and slaves, in a wing of the palace apart from the rest, and more beautiful for its gardens and marvellous adornment, lived Nehushta, the last of the descendants of Jehoiakim the king remaining in Media; she was the fairest of all the women in Media, of royal blood and of more than royal beauty.

She was born in that year when Babylon was overthrown, and Daniel had brought her with him to Shushan when he had quitted Assyria, and thence to Ecbatana. In the care of the prophet's kinswomen the little maid had thriven and grown fair in the stranger's land. Her soft child's eyes had lost their wondering look and had turned very proud and dark, and the long black lashes that fringed the heavy lids drooped to her cheek when she looked down. Her features were noble and almost straight in outline, but in the slight bend, at the beginning of the nose, in the wide curved nostrils, the strong full lips, and in the pale olive skin, where the blood ebbed and flowed so generously, the signs of the Jewish race were all present and unmistakable.

Nehushta, the high-born lady of Judah, was a princess in every movement, in every action, in every word she uttered. The turn of her proud head was sovereign in its expression of approval or contempt, and Zoroaster himself bowed to the simple gesture of her hand as obediently as he would have done before the Great King in all his glory. Even the venerable prophet, sitting in his lofty tower high above the city and the fortress, absorbed in the contemplation of that other life which was so very near to him, smiled tenderly and stretched out his old hands to greet Nehushta when she mounted to his chamber at sunset, attended by her maidens and her slaves. She was the youngest of all his kinsfolk—fatherless and motherless, the last direct descendant of King Jehoiakim remaining in Media, and the aged prophet and governor cherished her and loved her for her royalty, as well as for her beauty and her kinship to himself. Assyrian in his education, Persian in his adherence to the conquering dynasty and in his long and faithful service of the Persians, Daniel was yet in his heart, as in his belief, a true son of Judah; proud of his race and tender of its young branches, as though he were himself the father of his country and the king of his people.

The last red glow of the departed day faded and sank above the black Zagros mountains to westward. The opposite sky was cold and gray, and all the green plain turned to a dull soft hue as the twilight crept over it, ever darker and more misty. In the gardens of the palace the birds in thousands sang together in chorus, as only Eastern birds do sing at sunrise and at nightfall, and their voices sounded like one strong, sweet, high chord, unbroken and drawn out.

Nehushta wandered in the broad paths alone. The dry warm air of the summer's evening had no chill in it, and though a fine woven mantle of purple from Srinagur hung loosely from her shoulders, she needed not to draw it about her. The delicate folds of her upper tunic fell closely around her to her knees, and were gathered at the waist by a magnificent belt of wrought gold and pearls; the long sleeves, drawn in at the wrist by clasps of pearls, almost covered her slender hands; and as she walked her delicate feet moved daintily in rich embroidered sandals with high golden heels, below the folds of the wide trousers of white and gold embroidery, gathered in at the ankle. Upon her head the stiff linen tiara of spotless white sat proudly as a royal crown, the folds of it held by a single pearl of price, and from beneath it her magnificent hair rolled down below her waist in dark smooth waves.

There was a terrace that looked eastward from the gardens. Thither Nehushta bent her steps, slowly, as though in deep thought, and when she reached the smooth marble balustrade, she leaned over it and let her dark eyes rest on the quiet landscape. The peace of the evening descended upon her; the birds of the day ceased singing with the growing darkness; and slowly, out of the plain, the yellow moon soared up and touched the river and the meadows with mystic light; while far off, in the rose-thickets of the gardens, the first notes of a single nightingale floated upon the scented breeze, swelling and trilling, quivering and falling again, in a glory of angelic song. The faint air fanned her cheek, the odours of the box and the myrtle and the roses intoxicated her senses, and as the splendid shield of the rising moon cast its broad light into her dreaming eyes, her heart overflowed, and Nehushta the princess lifted up her voice and sang an ancient song of love, in the tongue of her people, to a soft minor melody, that sounded like a sigh from the southern desert.

_"Come unto me, my beloved, in the warmth of the darkness, come— Rise, and hasten thy footsteps, to be with me at night-time, come!

"I wait in the darkness for him, and the sand of the desert whirling Is blown at the door of my tent which is open toward the desert.

"My ear in the darkness listeth for the sound of his coming nearer, Mine eyes watch for him and rest not, for I would not he found me sleeping.

"For when my beloved cometh, he is like the beam of the morning;[2] Ev'n as the dawn in a strange land to the sight of a man journeying.

"Yea, when my beloved cometh, as dew that descendeth from heaven, No man can hear when it falleth, but as rain it refresheth all things.

"In his hand bringeth he lilies, in his right hand are many flowers, Roses hath he on his forehead, he is crowned with roses from Shinar.

"The night-winds make sweet songs for him, even in the darkness soft music; Whithersoever he goeth, there his sweetness goeth before him."_

[Footnote 2: "Thou art to me as the beam of the east rising in a strange land."—Ossian.]

Her young voice died away in a soft murmuring cadence, and the nightingale alone poured out her heartful of lore to the ancient moon. But as Nehushta rested immovable by the marble balustrade of the terrace, there was a rustle among the myrtles and a quick step on the pavement. The dark maiden started at the sound, and a happy smile parted her lips. But she did not turn to look; only her hand stole out behind her on the marble where she knew her lover's would meet it. There was in the movement all the certainty of conquest and yet all the tenderness of love. The Persian trod quickly and laid his hand on hers, and bent to her, trying to meet her eyes: for one moment still she gazed out straight before her, then turned and faced him suddenly, as though she had withheld her welcome as long as she could and then given it all at once.

"I did not call you," she said, covering him with her eyes in the moonlight, but making as though she would withdraw herself a little from him, as he drew her with his hand, and with his arm, and with his eyes.

"And yet I heard you call me, my beloved," answered Zoroaster. "I heard your voice singing very sweet things in your own language—and so I came, for you did call me."

"But did you pride yourself it was for you?" laughed Nehushta. "I sang of the desert, and of tents, and of whirling sand—there is none of these things here."

"You said that your beloved brought roses in his hand—and so I do. I will crown you with them. May I? No—I shall spoil your head-dress. Take them and do as you will with them."

"I will take them—and—I always do as I will."

"Then will to take the giver also," answered Zoroaster, letting his arm steal about her, as he half sat upon the balustrade. Nehushta looked at him again, for he was good to see, and perhaps she loved his straight calm features the better in that his face was fair, and not dark like hers.

"Methinks I have taken the giver already," she answered.

"Not yet—not all," said Zoroaster in a low voice, and a shadow of sadness crossed his noble face that looked white in the moonlight. Nehushta sighed softly and presently she laid her cheek upon his shoulder where the folding of his purple mantle made a pillow between her face and the polished golden scales of his breastplate.

"I have strange news to tell you, beloved," said Zoroaster presently. Nehushta started and looked up, for his voice was sad. "Nay, fear not!" he continued, "there is no harm in it, I trust; but there are great changes in the kingdom, and there will be greater changes yet. The seven princes have slain Smerdis in Shushan, and Darius is chosen king, the son of Gushtasp, whom the Greeks call Hystaspes."

"He who came hither last year?" asked Nehushta quickly. "He is not fair, this new king."

"Not fair," replied the Persian, "but a brave man and a good. He has, moreover, sent for me to go to Shushan—"

"For you!" cried Nehushta, suddenly laying her two hands on Zoroaster's shoulders and gazing into his eyes. His face was to the moonlight, while hers was in the dark, and she could see every shade of expression. He smiled. "You laugh at me!" she cried indignantly. "You mock me—you are going away and you are glad!"

She would have turned away from him, but he held her two hands.

"Not alone," he answered. "The Great King has sent an order that I shall bring to Shushan the kinsfolk of Jehoiakim, saving only Daniel, our master, for he is so old that he cannot perform the journey. The king would honour the royal seed of Judah, and to that end he sends for you, most noble and most beloved princess."

Nehushta was silent and thoughtful; her hand slipped from Zoroaster's grasp, and her eyes looked dreamily out at the river, on which the beams of the now fully-risen moon glanced, as on the scales of a silver serpent.

"Are you glad, my beloved?" asked Zoroaster. He stood with his back to the balustrade, leaning on one elbow, and his right hand played carelessly with the heavy gold tassels of his cloak. He had come up from the fortress in his armour, as he was, to bring the news to Nehushta and to Daniel; his gilded harness was on his back, half-hidden by the ample purple cloak, his sword was by his side, and on his head he wore the pointed helmet, richly inlaid with gold, bearing in front the winged wheel which the sovereigns of the Persian empire had assumed after the conquest of Assyria. His very tall and graceful body seemed planned to combine the greatest possible strength with the most surpassing activity, and in his whole presence there breathed the consciousness of ready and elastic power, the graceful elasticity of a steel bow always bent, the inexpressible ease of motion and the matchless swiftness that men had when the world was young—that wholeness of harmonious proportion which alone makes rest graceful, and the inactivity of idleness itself like a mode of perfect motion. As they stood there together, the princess of Judah and the noble Persian, they were wholly beautiful and yet wholly contrasted—the Semite and the Aryan, the dark race of the south, on which the hot air of the desert had breathed for generations in the bondage of Egypt, and left its warm sign-manual of southern sunshine,—and the fair man of the people whose faces were already set northwards, on whom the north breathed already its icy fairness, and magnificent coldness of steely strength.

"Are you glad, my beloved?" asked Zoroaster again, looking up and laying his right hand on the princess's arm. She had given no answer to his question, but only gazed dreamily out over the river.

She seemed about to speak, then paused again, then hesitated and answered his question by another.

"Zoroaster—you love me," again she paused, and, as he passionately seized her hands and pressed his lips to them, she said softly, turning her head away, "What is love?"

He, too, waited one moment before he answered, and, standing to his lordly height, took her head between his hands and pressed it to his breast; then, with one arm around her, he stood looking eastward and spoke:

"Listen, my beloved, and I, who love you, will tell you what love is. In the far-off dawn of the soul-life, in the ethereal distance of the outer firmament, in the mist of the star-dust, our spirits were quickened with the spirit of God, and found one another, and met. Before earth was for us, we were one; before time was for us, we were one—even as we shall be one when there is no time for us any more. Then Ahura Mazda, the all-wise God, took our two souls from among the stars, and set them in the earth, clothed for a time with mortal bodies. But we know each other, that we were together from the first, although these earthly things obscure our immortal vision, and we see each other less clearly. Yet is our love none the less—rather, it seems every day greater, for our bodies can feel joy and sorrow, even as our spirits do; so that I am able to suffer for you, in which I rejoice, and I would that I might be chosen to lay down my life for you, that you might know how I love you; for often you doubt me, and sometimes you doubt yourself. There should be no doubt in love. Love is from the first, and will be to the end, and beyond the end; love is so eternal, so great, so whole, that this mortal life of ours is but as a tiny instant, a moment of pausing in our journey from one star-world to another along the endless paths of heavenly glory we shall tread, together—it is nothing, this worldly life of ours. Before it shall seem long that we have loved, this earth we stand on, these things we touch, these bodies of ours that we think so strong and fair, will be forgotten and dissolved into their elements in the trackless and undiscoverable waste of past mortality, while we ourselves are ever young, and ever fair, and for ever living in our immortal love."

Nehushta looked up wonderingly into her lover's eyes, then let her head rest on his shoulder. The high daring of his thoughts seemed ever trying to scale heaven itself, seeking to draw her to some wondrous region of mystic beauty and strange spirit life. She was awed for a moment, then she, too, spoke in her own fashion.

"I love life," she said, "I love you because you live, not because you are a spirit chained and tied down for a time. I love this soft sweet earth, the dawn of it, and the twilight of it; I love the sun in his rising and in his setting; I love the moon in her fulness and in her waning; I love the smell of the box and of the myrtle, of the roses and of the violets; I love the glorious light of day, the splendour of heat and greenness, the song of the birds of the air and the song of the labourer in the field, the hum of the locust, and the soft buzzing of the bee; I love the brightness of gold and the richness of fine purple, the tramp of your splendid guards and the ring of their trumpets clanging in the fresh morning, as they march through the marble courts of the palace. I love the gloom of night for its softness, the song of the nightingale in the ivory moonlight, the rustle of the breeze in the dark rose-thickets, and the odour of the sleeping flowers in my gardens; I love even the cry of the owl from the prophet's tower, and the soft thick sound of the bat's wings, as he flits past the netting of my window. I love it all, for the whole earth is rich and young and good to touch, and most sweet to live in. And I love you because you are more beautiful than other men, fairer and stronger and braver, and because you love me, and will let no other love me but yourself, if you were to die for it. Ah, my beloved, I would that I had all the sweet voices of the earth, all the tuneful tongues of the air, to tell you how I love you!"

"There is no lack of sweetness, nor of eloquence, my princess," said Zoroaster; "there is no need of any voice sweeter than yours, nor of any tongue more tuneful. You love in your way, I in mine; the two together must surely be the perfect whole. Is it not so? Nay—seal the deed once again—and again—so! 'Love is stronger than death,' says your preacher."

"'And jealousy is as cruel as the grave,' he says, too," added Nehushta, her eyes flashing fire as her lips met his. "You must never make me jealous, Zoroaster, never, never! I would be so cruel—you cannot dream how cruel I would be!"

Zoroaster laughed under his silken beard, a deep, joyous, ringing laugh that startled the moonlit stillness.

"By Nabon and Bel, there is small cause for your jealousy here," he said.

"Swear not by your false gods!" laughed Nehushta. "You know not how little it would need to rouse me."

"I will not give you that little," answered the Persian. "And as for the false gods, they are well enough for a man to swear by in these days. But I will swear by any one you command me, or by anything!"

"Swear not, or you will say again that the oath has need of sealing," replied Nehushta, drawing her mantle around her, so as to cover half her face. "Tell me, when are we to begin our journey? We have talked much and have said little, as it ever is. Shall we go at once, or are we to wait for another order? Is Darius safe upon the throne? Who is to be chiefest at the court—one of the seven princes, I suppose, or his old father? Come, do you know anything of all these changes? Why have you never told me what was going to happen—you who are high in power and know everything?"

"Your questions flock upon me like doves to a maiden who feeds them from her hand," said Zoroaster, with a smile, "and I know not which shall be fed first. As for the king, I know that he will be great, and will hold securely the throne, for he has already the love of the people from the Western sea to the wild Eastern mountains. But it seemed as though the seven princes would have divided the empire amongst them, until this news came. I think he will more likely take one of your people for his close friend than trust to the princes. As for our journey, we must depart betimes, or the king will have gone before us from Shushan to Stakhar in the south, where they say he will build himself a royal dwelling and stay in the coming winter time. Prepare yourself for the journey, therefore, my princess, lest anything be forgotten and you should be deprived of what you need for any time."

"I am never deprived of what I need," said Nehushta, half in pride and half in jest.

"Nor I, when I am with my beloved!" answered the Persian. "And now the moon is high, and I must bear this news to our master, the prophet."

"So soon?" said Nehushta reproachfully, and she turned her head away.

"I would there were no partings, my beloved, even for the space of an hour," answered Zoroaster, tenderly drawing her to him; but she resisted a little and would not look at him.

"Farewell now—good-night, my princess—light of my soul;" he kissed her dark cheek passionately. "Good-night!"

He trod swiftly across the terrace.

"Zoroaster! prince!" Nehushta called aloud, but without turning. He came back. She threw her arms about his neck and kissed him almost desperately. Then she pushed him gently away from her.

"Go—my love—only that," she murmured, and he left her standing by the marble balustrade, while the yellow moon turned slowly pale as she rose in the heavens, and the song of the lorn nightingale re-echoed in the still night, from the gardens to the towers, in long sweet cries of burning love, and soft, complaining, silvery notes of mingled sorrow and joy.


In the prophet's chamber, also, the moonbeams fell upon the marble floor; but a seven-beaked Hebrew lamp of bronze shed a warmer light around, soft and mellow, yet strong enough to illuminate the scroll that lay open upon the old man's knee. His brows were knit together, and the furrows on his face were shaded deeply by the high light, as he sat propped among many cushions and wrapped in his ample purple cloak that was thickly lined with fur and drawn together over his snowy beard; for the years of his life were nearly accomplished, and the warmth of his body was even then leaving him.

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