Marzio's Crucifix and Zoroaster
by F. Marion Crawford
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"Oh yes! I remember when I was quite a little girl, when Cambyses—I mean—when the king came to the throne—it was magnificent!" Nehushta was not used to hesitate in her speech, but as she recalled the day when Cambyses was made king, it suddenly came over her that any reminiscences of the past might be painful to the extraordinary woman by her side. But Atossa showed no signs of being disturbed. On the contrary, she smiled more sweetly than ever, though there was perhaps a slight affectation of sadness in her voice as she answered:

"Do not fear to hurt me by referring to those times, dear princess. I am accustomed to speak of them well enough. Yes, indeed I remember that great day, with the bright sun shining upon the procession, and the cars with four horses that they dedicated to the sun, and the milk-white horse that they slaughtered upon the steps of the temple. How I cried for him, poor beast! It seemed so cruel to sacrifice a horse! Even a few black slaves would have been a more natural offering, or a couple of Scythians."

"I remember," said Nehushta, somewhat relieved at the queen's tone. "Of course I have now and then seen processions in Ecbatana, but Daniel would not let me go to the temple. They say Ecbatana is very much changed since the Great King has not gone there in summer. It is very quiet—it is given over to horse-merchants and grain-sellers, and they bring all the salted fish there from the Hyrcanian sea, so that some of the streets smell horribly."

Atossa laughed at the description, more out of courtesy than because it amused her.

"In my time," she answered, "the horse-market was in the meadow by the road toward Zagros, and the fish-sellers were not allowed to come within a farsang of the city. The royal nostrils were delicate. But everything is changed—here, everywhere. We have had several—revolutions—religious ones, I mean of course, and so many people have been killed that there is a savour of death in the air. It is amazing how much trouble people will give themselves about the question of sacrificing a horse to the sun, or a calf to Auramazda, or an Ethiopian to Nabon or Ashtaroth! And these Magians! They are really no more descendants of the priests in the Aryan home than I am a Greek. Half of them are nearly black—they are Hindus and speak Persian with an accent. They believe in a vast number of gods of all sizes and descriptions, and they sing hymns, in which they say that all these gods are the same. It is most confusing, and as the principal part of their chief sacrifice consists in making themselves exceedingly drunk with the detestable milkweed juice of which they are so fond, the performance is disgusting. The Great King began by saying that if they wished to sacrifice to their deities, they might do so, provided no one could find them doing it; and if they wished to be drunk, they might be drunk when and where they pleased; but that if they did the two together, he would crucify every Magian in Persia. His argument was very amusing. He said that a man who is drunk naturally speaks the truth, whereas a man who sacrifices to false gods inevitably tells lies; wherefore a man who sacrifices to false gods when he is drunk, runs the risk of telling lies and speaking the truth at the same time, and is consequently a creature revolting to logic, and must be immediately destroyed for the good of the whole race of mankind."

Nehushta had listened with varying attention to the queen's account of the religious difficulties in the kingdom, and she laughed at the Megoeric puzzle by which Darius justified the death of the Magians. But in her heart she longed to see Zoroaster, and was weary of entertaining her royal guest. By way of diversion she clapped her hands, and ordered the slaves who came at her summons to bring sweetmeats and sherbet of crushed fruit and snow.

"Are you fond of hunting?" asked Atossa, delicately taking a little piece of white fig-paste.

"I have never been allowed to hunt," answered Nehushta. "Besides, it must be very tiring."

"I delight in it—the fig-paste is not so good as it used to be—there is a new confectioner. Darius considered that the former one had religious convictions involving the telling of lies—and this is the result! We are fallen low indeed when we cannot eat a Magian's pastry! I am passionately fond of hunting, but it is far from here to the desert and the lions are scarce. Besides, the men who are fit for lion-hunting are generally engaged in hunting their fellow-creatures."

"Does the Great King hunt?" inquired Nehushta, languidly sipping her sherbet from a green jade goblet, as she lay among her cushions, supporting herself upon one elbow.

"Whenever he has leisure. He will talk of nothing else to you—"

"Surely," interrupted Nehushta, with an air of perfect innocence, "I shall not be so far honoured as that the Great King should talk with me?"

Atossa raised her blue eyes and looked curiously at the dark princess. She knew nothing of what had passed the night before, save that the king had seen Nehushta for a few moments, but she knew his character well enough to imagine that his frank and, as she thought, undignified manner might have struck Nehushta even in that brief interview. The idea that the princess was already deceiving her flashed across her mind. She smiled more tenderly than ever, with a little added air of sadness that gave her a wonderful charm.

"Yes, the Great King is very gracious to the ladies of the court," she said. "You are so beautiful and so different from them all that he will certainly talk long with you after the banquet this evening—when he has drunk much wine." The last words were added with a most special sweetness of tone.

Nehushta's face flushed a little as she drank more sherbet before she answered. Then, letting her soft dark eyes rest, as though in admiration, upon the queen's face, she spoke in a tone of gentle deprecation:

"Shall a man prefer the darkness of night to the glories of risen day? Or shall a man turn from the lilies to pluck the lowly flower of the field?"

"You know our poets, too?" exclaimed Atossa, pleased with the graceful tone of the compliment, but still looking at Nehushta with curious eyes. There was a self-possession about the Hebrew princess that she did not like; it was as though some one had suddenly taken a quality of her own and made it theirs and displayed it before her eyes. There was indeed this difference, that while Atossa's calm and undisturbed manner was generally real, Nehushta's was assumed, and she herself felt that, at any moment, it might desert her at her utmost need.

"So you know our poets?" repeated the queen, and this time she laughed lightly. "Indeed I fear the king will talk to you more than ever, for he loves poetry, I daresay Zoroaster, too, has repeated many verses to you in the winter evenings at Ecbatana. He used to know endless poetry when he was a boy."

This time Nehushta looked at the queen, and wondered how she, who could not be more than two or three and twenty years old, although now married to her third husband, could speak of having known Zoroaster as a boy, seeing that he was past thirty years of age. She turned the question upon the queen.

"You must have seen Zoroaster very often before he left Shushan," she said. "You know him so well."

"Yes—every one knew him. He was the favourite of the court, with his beauty and his courage and his strange affection for that old—for the old Hebrew prophet. That is why Cambyses sent them both away," added she with a light laugh. "They were far too good, both of them, to be endured among the doings of those times."

Atossa spoke readily enough of Cambyses. Nehushta wondered whether she could be induced to speak of Smerdis. Her supposed ignorance of the true nature of what had occurred in the last few months would permit her to speak of the dead usurper with impunity.

"I suppose there have been great changes lately in the manners of the court—during this last year," suggested Nehushta carelessly. She pulled a raisin from the dry stem, and tried to peel it with her delicate fingers.

"Indeed there have been changes," answered Atossa, calmly. "A great many things that used to be tolerated will never be heard of now. On the whole, the change has been rather in relation to religion than otherwise. You will understand that in one year we have had three court religions. Cambyses sacrificed to Ashtaroth—and I must say he made a most appropriate choice of his tutelary goddess. Smerdis"—continued the queen in measured tones and with the utmost calmness of manner—"Smerdis devoted himself wholly to the worship of Indra, who appeared to be a convenient association of all the most agreeable gods; and the Great King now rules the earth by the grace of Auramazda. I, for my part, have always inclined to the Hebrew conception of one God—perhaps that is much the same as Auramazda, the All-Wise. What do you think?"

Nehushta smiled at the deft way in which the queen avoided speaking of Smerdis by turning the conversation again to religious topics. But fearing another lecture on the comparative merits of idolatry, human sacrifice, and monotheism, she manifested very little interest in the subject.

"I daresay it is the same. Zoroaster always says so, and that was the one point that Daniel could never forgive him. The sun is coming through those plants upon your head—shall we not have our cushions moved into the shade at the other end?" She clapped her hands and rose languidly, offering her hand to Atossa. But the queen sprang lightly to her feet.

"I have stayed too long," she said. "Come with me, dearest princess, and we will go out into the orange gardens upon the upper terrace. Perhaps," she added, adjusting the folds of her mantle, "we shall find Zoroaster there, or some of the princes, or even the Great King himself. Or, perhaps, it would amuse you to see where I live?"

Nehushta received her mantle from her slaves, and one of them brought her a linen tiara in place of the gauze veil she had twisted about her hair. But Atossa would not permit the change.

"It is too beautiful!" she cried enthusiastically. "So new! you must really not change it."

She put her arm around Nehushta affectionately and led her towards the door of the inner staircase. Then suddenly she paused, as though recollecting herself.

"No," she said, "I will show you the way I came. It is shorter and you should know it. It may be of use to you."

So they left the balcony by the little door that was almost masked by one of the great pillars, and descended the dark stairs. Nehushta detested every sort of bodily inconvenience, and inwardly wished the queen had not changed her mind, but had led her by an easier way.

"It is not far," said the queen, descending rapidly in front of her.

"It is dreadfully steep," objected Nehushta, "and I can hardly see my way at all. How many steps are there?"

"Only a score more," answered the queen's voice, farther down. She seemed to be hurrying, but Nehushta had no intention of going any faster, and carefully groped her way. As she began to see a glimmer of light at the last turn of the winding stair, she heard loud voices in the corridor below. With the cautious instinct of her race, she paused and listened. The hard, quick tones of an angry man dominated the rest.


Zoroaster had sat for nearly an hour, his eyes fixed on the blue sky, his thoughts wandering in contemplation of things greater and higher than those of earth, when he was roused by the measured tread of armed men marching in a distant room. In an instant he stood up, his helmet on his head,—the whole force of military habit bringing him back suddenly to the world of reality. In a moment the same heavy curtain, from under which Atossa had issued two hours before, was drawn aside, and a double file of spearmen came out upon the balcony, ranging themselves to right and left with well-drilled precision. A moment more, and the king himself appeared, walking alone, in his armour and winged helmet, his left hand upon the hilt of his sword, his splendid mantle hanging to the ground behind his shoulders. As he came between the soldiers, he walked more slowly, and his dark, deep-set eyes seemed to scan the bearing and accoutrements of each separate spearman. It was rarely indeed, in those early days of his power, that he laid aside his breastplate for the tunic, or his helmet for the tiara and royal crown. In his whole air and gait the character of the soldier dominated, and the look of the conqueror was already in his face.

Zoroaster strode forward a few paces, and stood still as the king caught sight of him, preparing to prostrate himself, according to the ancient custom. But Darius checked him by a gesture; turning half round, he dismissed the guard, who filed back through the door as they had come, and the curtain fell behind them.

"I like not these elaborate customs," said the king. "A simple salutation, the hand to the lips and forehead—it is quite enough. A man might win a battle if he had all the time that it takes him to fall down at my feet and rise up again, twenty times in a day."

As the king's speech seemed to require no answer, Zoroaster stood silently waiting for his orders. Darius walked to the balustrade and stood in the full glare of the sun for a moment, looking out. Then he came back again.

"The town seems to be quiet this morning," he said. "How long did the queen tarry here talking with thee, Zoroaster?"

"The queen talked with her servant for the space of half an hour," answered Zoroaster, without hesitation, though he was astonished at the suddenness and directness of the question.

"She is gone to see thy princess," continued the king.

"The queen told her servant it was yet too early to see Nehushta," remarked the warrior.

"She is gone to see her, nevertheless," asserted Darius, in a tone of conviction. "Now, it stands in reason that when the most beautiful woman in the world has been told that another woman is come who is more beautiful than she, she will not lose a moment in seeing her." He eyed Zoroaster curiously for a moment, and his thick black beard did not altogether hide the smile on his face. "Come," he added, "we shall find the two together."

The king led the way and Zoroaster gravely followed. They passed down the staircase by which the queen had gone, and entering the low passage, came to the small door which she had bolted behind her with so much difficulty. The king pushed his weight against it, but it was still fastened.

"Thou art stronger than I, Zoroaster," he said, with a deep laugh. "Open the door."

The young warrior pushed heavily against the planks, and felt that one of them yielded. Then, standing back, he dealt a heavy blow on the spot with his clenched fist; a second, and the plank broke in. He put his arm through the aperture, and easily slipped the bolt back, and the door flew open. The blood streamed from his hand.

"That is well done," said Darius as he entered. His quick eye saw something white upon the stone bench in the dusky corner by the door. He stooped and picked it up quickly. It was the sealed scroll Atossa had left there when she needed both her hands to draw the bolt. Darius took it to one of the narrow windows, looked at it curiously and broke the seal. Zoroaster stood near and wiped the blood from his bruised knuckle.

The contents of the scroll were short. It was addressed to one Phraortes, of Ecbatana in Media, and contained the information that the Great King had returned in triumph from Babylon, having subdued the rebels and slain many thousands in two battles. Furthermore, that the said Phraortes should give instant information of the queen's affairs, and do nothing in regard to them until further intimation arrived.

The king stood a moment in deep thought. Then he walked slowly down the corridor, holding the scroll loose in his hand. Just at that instant Atossa emerged from the dark staircase, and as she found herself face to face with Darius, she uttered an exclamation and stood still.

"This is very convenient place for our interview," said Darius quietly. "No one can hear us. Therefore speak the truth at once." He held up the scroll to her eyes.

Atossa's ready wit did not desert her, nor did she change colour, though she knew her life was in the balance with her words. She laughed lightly as she spoke:

"I came down the stairs this morning——"

"To see the most beautiful woman in the world," interrupted Darius, raising his voice. "You have seen her. I am glad of it. Why did you bolt the door of the passage?"

"Because I thought it unfitting that the passage to the women's apartments should be left open when so many in the palace know the way," she answered readily enough.

"Where were you taking this letter when you left it at the door?" asked the king, beginning to doubt whether there were anything wrong at all.

"I was about to send it to Ecbatana," answered Atossa with perfect simplicity.

"Who is this Phraortes?"

"He is the governor of the lands my father gave me for my own in Media. I wrote him to tell him of the Great King's victory, and that he should send me information concerning my affairs, and do nothing further until he hears from me."

"Why not?"

"Because I thought it possible that the Great King would spend the summer in Ecbatana, and that I should therefore be there myself to give my own directions. I forgot the letter because I had to take both hands to draw the bolt, and I was coming back to get it. Nehushta the princess is with me—she is now upon the staircase."

The king looked thoughtfully at his wife's beautiful face.

"You have evidently spoken the truth," he said slowly. "But it is not always easy to understand what your truth signifies. I often think it would be much wiser to strangle you. Say you that Nehushta is near? Call her, then. Why does she tarry?"

In truth Nehushta had trembled as she crouched upon the stairs, not knowing whether to descend or to fly up the steps again. As she heard the queen pronounce her name, however, she judged it prudent to seem to have been out of earshot, and with quick, soft steps, she went up till she came to the lighted part, and there she waited.

"Let the Great King go himself and find her," said Atossa proudly, "if he doubts me any further." She stood aside to let him pass. But Darius beckoned to Zoroaster to go. He had remained standing at some distance, an unwilling witness to the royal altercation that had taken place before him; but as he passed the queen, she gave him a glance of imploring sadness, as though beseeching his sympathy in what she was made to suffer. He ran quickly up the steps in spite of the darkness, and found Nehushta waiting by the window higher up. She started as he appeared, for he was the person she least expected. But he took her quickly in his arms, and kissed her passionately twice.

"Come quickly, my beloved," he whispered. "The king waits below."

"I heard his voice—and then I fled," she whispered hurriedly; and they began to descend again. "I hate her—I knew I should," she whispered, as she leaned upon his arm. So they emerged into the corridor, and met Darius waiting for them. The queen was nowhere to be seen, and the door at the farther extremity of the narrow way was wide open.

The king was as calm as though nothing had occurred; he still held the open letter in his hand as Nehushta entered the passage, and bowed herself before him. He took her hand for a moment, and then dropped it; but his eyes flashed suddenly and his arm trembled at her touch.

"Thou hadst almost lost thy way," he said. "The palace is large and the passages are many and devious. Come now, I will lead thee to the gardens. There thou canst find friends among the queen's noble women, and amusements of many kinds. Let thy heart delight in the beauty of Shushan, and if there is anything that thou desirest, ask and I will give it thee."

Nehushta bent her head in thanks. The only thing she desired was to be alone for half an hour with Zoroaster; and that seemed difficult.

"Thy servant desireth what is pleasant in thy sight," she answered. And so they left the passage by the open door, and the king himself conducted Nehushta to the entrance of the garden, and bade the slave-woman who met them to lead her to the pavilion where the ladies of the palace spent the day in the warm summer weather. Zoroaster knew that whatever liberty his singular position allowed him in the quarter of the building where the king himself lived, he was not privileged to enter that place which was set apart for the noble ladies. Darius hated to be always surrounded by guards and slaves, and the terraces and staircases of his dwelling were generally totally deserted,—only small detachments of spearmen guarding jealously the main entrances. But the remainder of the palace swarmed with the gorgeously dressed retinue of the court, with slaves of every colour and degree, from the mute smooth-faced Ethiopian to the accomplished Hebrew scribes of the great nobles; from the black and scantily-clad fan-girls to the dainty Greek tirewomen of the queen's toilet, who loitered near the carved marble fountain at the entrance to the gardens; and in the outer courts, detachments of the horsemen of the guard rubbed their weapons, or reddened their broad leather bridles and trappings with red chalk, or groomed the horse of some lately arrived officer or messenger, or hung about and basked in the sun, with no clothing but their short-sleeved linen tunics and breeches, discussing the affairs of the nation with the certainty of decision peculiar to all soldiers, high and low. There was only room for a squadron of horse in the palace; but though they were few, they were the picked men of the guard, and every one of them felt himself as justly entitled to an opinion concerning the position of the new king, as though he were at least a general.

But Darius allowed no gossiping slaves nor wrangling soldiers in his own dwelling. There all was silent and apparently deserted, and thither he led Zoroaster again. The young warrior was astonished at the way in which the king moved about unattended, as carelessly as though he were a mere soldier himself; he was not yet accustomed to the restless independence of character, to the unceasing activity and perfect personal fearlessness of the young Darius. It was hard to realise that this simple, hard-handed, outspoken man was the Great King, and occupied the throne of the magnificent and stately Cyrus, who never stirred abroad without the full state of the court about him; or that he reigned in the stead of the luxurious Cambyses, who feared to tread upon uncovered marble, or to expose himself to the draught of a staircase; and who, after seven years of caring for his body, had destroyed himself in a fit of impotent passion. Darius succeeded to the throne of Persia as a lion coming into the place of jackals, as an eagle into a nest of crows and carrion birds—untiring, violent, relentless and brave.

"Knowest thou one Phraortes, of Ecbatana?" the king asked suddenly when he was alone with Zoroaster.

"I know him," answered the prince. "A man rich, and powerful, full of vanity as a peacock, and of wiles like a serpent. Not noble. He is the son of a fish-vendor, grown rich by selling salted sturgeons in the market-place. He is also the overseer of the queen's farmlands in Media, and of the Great King's horse-breeding stables."

"Go forth and bring him to me," said the king shortly. Without a word, Zoroaster made a brief salute and turned upon his heel to go. But it was as though a man had thrust him through with a knife. The king gazed after him in admiration of his magnificent obedience.

"Stay!" he called out. "How long wilt thou be gone?"

Zoroaster turned sharply round in military fashion, as he answered:

"It is a hundred and fifty farsangs[3] to Ecbatana. By the king's relays I can ride there in six days, and I can bring back Phraortes in six days more—if he die not of the riding," he added, with a grim smile.

[Footnote 3: Between five and six hundred English miles. South American postilions at the present day ride six hundred miles a week for a bare living.]

"Is he old, or young? Fat, or meagre?" asked the king, laughing.

"He is a man of forty years, neither thin nor fat—a good horseman in his way, but not as we are."

"Bind him to his horse if he falls off from weariness. And tell him he is summoned to appear before me. Tell him the business brooks no delay. Auramazda be with thee and bring thee help. Go with speed."

Again Zoroaster turned and in a moment he was gone. He had sworn to be the king's faithful servant, and he would keep his oath, cost what it might, though it was bitterness to him to leave Nehushta without a word. He bethought him as he hastily put on light garments for the journey, that he might send her a letter, and he wrote a few words upon a piece of parchment, and folded it together. As he passed by the entrance of the garden on his way to the stables, he looked about for one of Nehushta's slaves; but seeing none, he beckoned to one of the Greek tirewomen, and giving her a piece of gold, bade her take the little scroll to Nehushta, the Hebrew princess, who was in the gardens. Then he went quickly on, and mounting the best horse in the king's stables, galloped at a break-neck pace down the steep incline. In five minutes he had crossed the bridge, and was speeding over the straight, dusty road toward Nineveh. In a quarter of an hour, a person watching him from the palace would have seen his flying figure disappearing as in a tiny speck of dust far out upon the broad, green plain.

But the Greek slave-woman stood with Zoroaster's letter in her hand and held the gold piece he had given her in her mouth, debating what she should do. She was one of the queen's women, as it chanced, and she immediately reflected that she might turn the writing to some better account than by delivering it to Nehushta, whom she had seen for a moment that morning as she passed, and whose dark Hebrew face displeased the frivolous Greek, for some hidden reason. She thought of giving the scroll to the queen, but then she reflected that she did not know what it contained. The words were written hastily and in the Chaldean character. Their import might displease her mistress. The woman was not a newcomer, and she knew Zoroaster's face well enough from former times; she knew also, or suspected, that the queen secretly loved him, and she argued from the fact of Zoroaster, who was dressed for a journey, sending so hastily a word to Nehushta, that he loved the Hebrew princess. Therefore, if the letter were a mere love greeting, with no name written in it, the queen might apply it to herself, and she would be pleased; whereas, if it were in any way clear that the writing was intended for Nehushta, the queen would certainly be glad that it should never be delivered. The result of this cunning argument was that the Greek woman thrust the letter into her bosom, and the gold piece into her girdle; and went to seek an opportunity of seeing the queen alone.

That day, towards evening, Atossa sat in an inner chamber before her great mirror; the table was covered with jade boxes, silver combs, bowls of golden hair-pins, little ivory instruments, and all the appurtenances of her toilet. Two or three magnificent jewels lay among the many articles of use, gleaming in the reflected light of the two tall lamps that stood on bronze stands beside her chair. She was fully attired and had dismissed her women; but she lingered a moment, poring over the little parchment scroll her chief hairdresser had slipped into her hand when they were alone for a moment. Only a black fan-girl stood a few paces behind her, and resting the stem of the long palm against one foot thrust forward, swung the broad round leaf quickly from side to side at arm's length, sending a constant stream of fresh air upon her royal mistress, just below the level of the lamps which burned steadily above.

The queen turned the small letter again in her hand, and smiled to herself as she looked into the great burnished sheet of silver that surmounted the table. With some difficulty she had mastered the contents, for she knew enough of Hebrew and of the Chaldean character to comprehend the few simple words.

"I go hence for twelve days upon the king's business. My beloved, my soul is with thy soul and my heart with thy heart. As the dove that goeth forth in the morning and returneth in the evening to his mate, so I will return soon to thee."

Atossa knew well enough that the letter had been intended for Nehushta. The woman had whispered that Zoroaster had given it to her, and Zoroaster would never have written those words to herself; or, writing anything, would not have written in the Hebrew language.

But as the queen read, her heart rose up in wrath against the Persian prince and against the woman he loved. When she had talked with him that morning, she had felt her old yearning affection rising again in her breast. She had wondered at herself, being accustomed to think that she was beyond all feeling for man, and the impression she had received from her half-hour's talk with him was so strong, that she had foolishly delayed sending her letter to Phraortes, in order to see the woman Zoroaster admired, and had, in her absence of mind, forgotten the scroll upon the seat in the corridor, and had brought herself into such desperate danger through the discovery of the missive, that she hardly yet felt safe. The king had dismissed her peremptorily from his presence while he waited for Nehushta, and she had not seen him during the rest of the day. As for Zoroaster, she had soon heard from her women that he had taken the road towards Nineveh before noon, alone and almost unarmed, mounted upon one of the fleetest horses in Persia. She had not a doubt that Darius had despatched him at once to Ecbatana to meet Phraortes, or at least to inquire into the state of affairs in the city. She knew that no one could outride Zoroaster, and that there was nothing to be done but to await the issue. It was not possible to send a word of warning to her agent—he must inevitably take his chance, and if his conduct attracted suspicion, he would, in all probability, be at once put to death. She believed that, even in that event, she could easily clear herself; but she resolved, if possible, to warn him as soon as he reached Shushan, or even to induce the king to be absent from the palace for a few days at the time when Phraortes might be expected. There was plenty of time—at least eleven days.

Meanwhile, a desperate struggle was beginning within her, and the letter her woman had brought her hastened the conclusion to which her thoughts were rapidly tending.

She felt keenly the fact that Zoroaster, who had been so cold to her advances in former days, had preferred before her a Hebrew woman, and was now actually so deeply in love with Nehushta, that he could not leave the palace for a few days without writing her a word of love—he, who had never loved any one! She fiercely hated this dark woman, who was preferred before her by the man she secretly loved, and whom the king had brutally declared to be the most beautiful woman in the world. She longed for her destruction as she had never longed for anything in her life. Her whole soul rose in bitter resentment; not only did Zoroaster love this black-eyed, dark-browed child of captivity, but the king, who had always maintained that Atossa was unequalled in the world, even when he coldly informed her that he would never trust her, now dared to say before Zoroaster, almost before Nehushta herself, that the princess was the more beautiful of the two. The one man wounded her in her vanity, the other in her heart.

It would not be possible at present to be revenged upon the king. There was little chance of eluding his sleepless vigilance, or of leading him into any rash act of self-destruction. Besides, she knew him too well not to understand that he was the only man alive who could save Persia from further revolutions, and keep the throne against all comers. She loved power and the splendour of her royal existence, perhaps more than she loved Zoroaster. The idea of another change in the monarchy was not to be thought of, now that Darius had subdued Babylon. She had indeed a half-concerted plan with Phraortes to seize the power in Media in case the king were defeated in Babylonia, and the scroll she had so imprudently forgotten that very morning was merely an order to lay aside all such plans for the present, since the king had returned in triumph.

As far as her conscience was concerned, Atossa would as soon have overthrown and murdered the king to gratify the personal anger she felt against him at the present moment, as she would have wrecked the universe to possess a jewel she fancied. There existed in her mind no idea of proportion between the gratification of her passions and the means she might employ thereto; provided one gratification did not interfere with another which she always saw beyond. Nothing startled her on account of its mere magnitude; no plan was rejected by her merely because it implied ruin to a countless number of human beings who were useless to her. She coldly calculated the amount of satisfaction she could at any time obtain for her wishes and desires, so as not to prejudice the gratification of all the possible passions she might hereafter experience.

As for injuring Zoroaster, she would not have thought of it. She loved him in a way peculiar to herself, but it was love, nevertheless,—and she had no idea of wreaking her disappointment upon the object on which she had set her heart. As a logical consequence, she determined to turn all her anger against Nehushta, and she pictured to herself the delicious pleasure of torturing the young princess's jealousy to desperation. To convince Nehushta that Zoroaster was deceiving her, and really loved herself, the queen; to force Zoroaster into some position where he must either silently let Nehushta believe that he was attached to Atossa, or, as an alternative, betray the king's secrets by speaking the truth; to let Nehushta's vanity be flattered by the king's admiration,—nay, even to force her into a marriage with Darius, and then by suffering her again to fall into her first love for Zoroaster, bring her to a public disgrace by suddenly unmasking her to the king—to accomplish these things surely and quickly, reserving for herself the final delight of scoffing at her worsted rival—all this seemed to Atossa to constitute a plan at once worthy of her profound and scheming intelligence, and most sweetly satisfactory to her injured vanity and rejected love.

It would be hard for her to see Nehushta married to the king, and occupying the position of chief favourite even for a time. But the triumph would be the sweeter when Nehushta was finally overthrown, and meanwhile there would be much daily delight in tormenting the princess's jealousy. Chance, or rather the cunning of her Greek tirewoman, had thrown a weapon in her way which could easily be turned into an instrument of torture, and as she sat before her mirror, she twisted and untwisted the little bit of parchment, and smiled to herself, a sweet bright smile—and leaned her head back to the pleasant breeze of the fan.


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.[4] 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.


Atossa started back in pure astonishment and stared for a moment at the two guards, looking from one to the other, and trying to read their stolid faces. Then she laid her hand on their spears, and would have pushed them aside; but she could not.

"Whose hounds are ye?" she said angrily. "Know ye not the queen? Make way!"

But the two strong soldiers neither answered nor removed their weapons from before the door.

"Dog-faced slaves!" she said between her teeth. "I will crucify you both before sundown!" She turned and went away, but she was glad that no one was there in the narrow vestibule before the garden to see her discomfiture. It was the first time in her life she had ever been resisted by an inferior, and she could not bear it easily. But when she discovered, half an hour later, that the guards were obeying the Great King's orders, she bowed her head silently and went to her apartments to consider what she should do.

She could do nothing. There was no appeal against the king's word. He had distinctly commanded that no one save Nehushta, not even Atossa herself, was to be allowed to enter; he had placed the guards there himself the previous day, and had himself given the order.

For eleven days the door was barred; but Atossa did not again attempt to enter. Darius would have visited roughly such an offence, and she knew how delicate her position was. She resigned herself and occupied her mind with other things. Daily, an hour before noon, Nehushta swept proudly through the gate, and disappeared among the roses and myrtles of the garden; and daily, precisely as the sun reached the meridian, the king went in between the spearmen, and disappeared in like manner.

Darius had grown so suddenly stern and cold in manner towards the queen, that she dared not even mention the subject of the garden to him, fearing a sadden outburst of his anger, which would surely put an end to her existence in the court, and very likely to her life.

As for Nehushta, she had plentiful cause for reflection and much time for dreaming. If the days were not happy, they were at least made bearable for her by the absolute liberty she enjoyed. The king would have given her slaves and jewels and rich gifts without end, had she been willing to accept them. She said she had all she needed—and she said it a little proudly; only the king's visits grew to be the centre of the day, and each day the visit lengthened, till it came to be nearly evening when Darius issued from the gate.

She always waited for him in the eight-sided pavilion, and as their familiarity grew, the king would not even permit her to rise when he came, nor to use any of those forms of the court speech which were so distasteful to him. He simply sat himself down beside her, and talked to her and listened to her answers, as though he were one of his own subjects, no more hampered by the cares and state of royalty than any soldier in the kingdom.

It was a week since Zoroaster had mounted to ride to Ecbatana, and Darius sat as usual upon the marble bench by the side of Nehushta, who rested among the cushions, talking now without constraint upon all matters that chanced to occur as subjects of conversation. She thought Darius was more silent than usual, and his dark face was pale. He seemed weary, as though from some great struggle, and presently Nehushta stopped speaking and waited to see whether the king would say anything.

During the silence nothing was heard saving the plash of the little fountain, and the low soft ripple of the tiny waves that rocked themselves against the edge of the basin.

"Do you know, Nehushta," he said at last, in a weary voice, "that I am doing one of the worst actions of my life?"

Nehushta started, and the shadows in her face grew darker.

"Say rather the kindest action you ever did," she murmured.

"If it is not bad, it is foolish," said Darius, resting his chin upon his hand and leaning forward. "I would rather it were foolish than bad—I fear me it is both."

Nehushta could guess well enough what it was he would say. She knew she could have turned the subject, or laughed, or interrupted him in many ways; but she did none of these things. An indescribable longing seized her to hear him say that he loved her. What could it matter? He was so loyal and good that he could never be more than a friend. He was the king of the world—had he not been honest and kind, he would have needed no wooing to do as he pleased to do, utterly and entirely. A word from his lips and the name of Zoroaster would be but the memory of a man dead; and again a word, and Nehushta would be the king's wife! What need had he of concealment, or of devious ways? He was the king of the earth, whose shadow was life and death, whose slightest wish was a law to be enforced by hundreds of thousands of warriors! There was nothing between him and his desires—nothing but that inborn justice and truth, in which he so royally believed. Nehushta felt that she could trust him, and she longed—out of mere curiosity, she thought—to hear him speak words of love to her. It would only be for a moment—they would be so soon spoken; and at her desire, he would surely not speak them again. It seemed so sweet, she knew not why, to make this giant of despotic power do as she pleased; to feel that she could check him, or let him speak—him whom all obeyed and feared, as they feared death itself.

She looked up quietly, as she answered:

"How can it be either bad or foolish of you to make others so happy?"

"It seems as though it could be neither—and yet, all my reason tells me it is both," replied the king earnestly. "Here I sit beside you, day after day, deceiving myself with the thought that I am making your time pass pleasantly till—"

"There is not any deception in that," interrupted Nehushta gently. Somehow she did not wish him to pronounce Zoroaster's name. "I can never tell you how grateful I am—"

"It is I who am grateful," interrupted the king in his turn. "It is I who am grateful that I am allowed to be daily with you, and that you speak with me, and seem glad when I come—" He hesitated and stopped.

"What is there that is bad and foolish in that?" asked Nehushta, with a sudden smile, as she looked up into his face.

"There is more than I like to think," answered the king. "You say the time passes pleasantly for you. Do you think it is less pleasant for me?" His voice sank to a deep, soft tone, as he continued: "I sit here day after day, and day after day I love you more and more. I love you—where is the use of concealing that—if I could conceal it? You know it. Perhaps you pity me, for you do not love me. You pity me who hold the whole earth under my feet as an Egyptian juggler stands upon a ball, and rolls it whither he will." He ceased suddenly.

"Indeed I would that you did not love me," said Nehushta very gravely. She looked down. The pleasure of hearing the king's words was indeed exquisite, and she feared that her eyes might betray her. But she did not love him. She wondered what he would say next.

"You might as well wish that dry pastures should not burn when the sun shines on them, and there is no rain," he answered with a passing bitterness. "It is at least a satisfaction that my love does not harm you—that you are willing to have me for your friend—"

"Willing! Your friendship is almost the sweetest thing I know," exclaimed the princess. The king's eyes flashed darkly.

"Almost! Yes, truly—my friendship and another man's love are the sweetest things! What would my friendship be without his love? By Auramazda and the six Amshaspands of Heaven, I would it were my love and his friendship! I would that Zoroaster were the king, and I Zoroaster, the king's servant! I would give all Persia and Media, Babylon and Egypt, and all the uttermost parts of my kingdom, to hear your sweet voice say: 'Darius, I love thee!' I would give my right hand, I would give my heart from my breast and my soul from my body—my life and my strength, and my glory and my kingdom would I give to hear you say: 'Come, my beloved, and put thine arms about me!' Ah, child! you know not what my love is—how it is higher than the heavens in worshipping you, and broader than the earth to be filled with you, and deeper than the depths of the sea, to change not, but to abide for you always."

The king's voice was strong, and the power of his words found wings in it, and seemed to fly forth irresistibly with a message that demanded an answer. Nehushta regretted within herself that she had let him speak—but for all the world she could not have given up the possession of the words he had spoken. She covered her eyes with one hand and remained silent—for she could say nothing. A new emotion had got possession of her, and seemed to close her lips.

"You are silent," continued the king. "You are right. What should you answer me? My voice sounds like the raving of a madman, chained by a chain that he cannot break. If I had the strength of the mountains, I could not move you. I know it. All things I have but this—this love of yours that you have given to another. I would I had it! I should have the strength to surpass the deeds of men, had I your love! Who is this whom you love? A captain? A warrior? I tell you because you have so honoured him, so raised him upon the throne of your heart, I will honour him too, and I will raise him above all men, and all the nation shall bow before him. I will make a decree that he shall be worshipped as a god—this man whom you have made a god of by your love. I will build a great temple for you two, and I will go up with all the people, and fall down and bow before you, and worship you, and love you with every sinew and bone of my body, and with every hope and joy and sorrow of my soul. He whom you love shall ask, and whatsoever he asks I will give to him and to you. There shall not be anything left in the whole world that you desire, but I will give it to you. Am I not the king of the whole earth—the king of all living things but you?"

Darius breathed savagely hard through his clenched teeth, and rising suddenly, paced the pavement between Nehushta and the fountain. She was silent still, overcome with a sort of terror at his words—words, every one of which he was able to fulfil, if he so chose. Presently he stood still before her.

"Said I not well, that I rave as a madman—that I speak as a fool without understanding? What can I give you that you want? Or what thing can I devise that you have need of? Have you not all that the world holds for mortal woman and living man? Do you not love, and are you not loved in return? Have you not all—all—all? Ah! woe is me that I am lord over the nations, and have not a drop of the waters of peace wherewith to quench the thirst of my tormented soul! Woe is me that I rule the world and trample the whole earth beneath my feet, and cannot have the one thing that all the earth holds which is good! Woe is me, Nehushta, that you have cruelly stolen my peace from me, and I find it not—nor shall find it for evermore!"

The strong dark man stood wringing his hands together; his face was pale as the dead, his black eyes were blazing with a mad fire. Nehushta dared not look on the tempest she had roused, but she trembled and clasped her hands to her breast and looked down.

"Nay, you are right," he cried bitterly. "Answer me nothing, for you can have nothing to answer! Is it your fault that I am mad? Or is it your doing that I love you so? Has any one sinned in this? I have seen you—I saw you for a brief moment standing in the door of your tent—and seeing, I loved you, and love you, and shall love you till the heavens are rolled together and the scroll of all death is full! There is nothing, nothing that you can say or do. It is not your fault—it is not your sin; but it is by you and through you that I am undone,—broken as the tree in the storm of the mountains, burned up and parched as the beast perishing in the sun of the desert for lack of water, torn asunder and rent into pieces as the rope that breaks at the well! By you, and for you, and through you, I am ruined and lost—lost—lost for ever in the hell of my wretched greatness, in the immeasurable death of my own horrible despair!"

With a wild movement of agony, Darius fell at Nehushta's feet, prostrate upon the marble floor, and buried his face in the skirts of her mantle, utterly over-mastered and broken down by the tumult of his passion.

Nehushta was not heartless. Of a certainty she would have pitied any one in such distress and grief, even had the cause thereof come less near to herself. But, in all the sudden emotion she felt, the pity, the fear, and the self-reproach, there was joined a vague feeling that no man ever spoke as this man, that no lover ever poured forth such abundant love before, and in the dim suspicion of something greater than she had ever known, her fear and her pity grew stronger, and strove with each other.

At first she could not speak, but she put forth her delicate hand and laid it tenderly on the king's thick black hair, as gently as a mother might soothe a passionate child; and he suffered it to rest there. And presently she raised his head and laid it in her lap, and smoothed his forehead with her soft fingers, and spoke to him.

"You make me very sad," she almost whispered. "I would that you might be loved as you deserve love—that one more worthy than I might give you all I cannot give."

He opened his dark eyes that were now dull and weary, and he looked up to her face.

"There is none more worthy than you," he answered in low and broken tones.

"Hush," she said gently, "there are many. Will you forgive me—and forget me? Will you blot out this hour from your remembrance, and go forth and do those great and noble deeds which you came into the world to perform? There is none greater than you, none nobler, none more generous."

Darius lifted his head from her knee, and sprang to his feet.

"I will do all things, but I will not forget," he said. "I will do the great and the good deeds,—for you. I will be generous, for you; noble, for you; while the world lasts my deeds shall endure; and with them, the memory that they were done for you! Grant me only one little thing."

"Ask anything—everything," answered Nehushta, in troubled tones.

"Nehushta, you know how truly I love you—nay, I will not be mad again; fear not! Tell me this—tell me that if you had not loved Zoroaster, you would have loved me."

Nehushta blushed deeply and then turned pale. She rose to her feet, and took the king's outstretched hands.

"Indeed, indeed, you are most worthy of love—Darius, I could have loved you well." Her voice was very low, and the tears stood in her eyes.

"The grace of the All-Wise God bless thee!" cried the king, and it was as though a sudden bright light shone upon his face. Then he kissed her two hands fervently, and with one long look into her sorrowful eyes, he turned and left her.

But no man saw the king that day, nor did any know where he was, saving the two spearmen who stood at the door of his chamber. Within, he lay upon his couch, dry-eyed and stark, staring at the painted carvings of the ceiling.


The time passed, and it was eleven days since Zoroaster had set out. The king and Nehushta had continued to meet in the garden as before, and neither had ever referred to the day when the torrent of his heart had been suddenly let loose. The hours sped quietly and swiftly, without any event of importance. Only the strange bond, half friendship and half love, had grown stronger than before; and Nehushta wondered how it was that she could love two men so well, and yet so differently. Indeed they were very different men. She loved Zoroaster, and yet it sometimes seemed as though he would more properly have filled the place of a friend than of a lover. Darius she had accepted as her friend, but there were moments when she almost forgot that he was not something more. She tried to think of her meeting with Zoroaster, whether it would be like former meetings,—whether her heart would beat more strongly, or not beat at all when her lips touched his as of old. Her judgment was utterly disturbed and her heart no longer knew itself. She gave herself over to the pleasure of the king's society in the abandonment of the moment, half foreseeing that some great change was at hand, over which she could exercise no control.

The sun was just risen, but the bridge over the quickly flowing Choaspes was still in the shadow cast over the plain by the fortress and the palace, when two horsemen appeared upon the road from Nineveh, riding at full gallop, and, emerging from the blue mist that still lay over the meadows, crossed the bridge and continued at full speed towards the ascent to the palace.

The one rider was a dark, ill-favoured man, whose pale flaccid cheeks and drooping form betrayed the utmost fatigue. A bolster was bound across the withers of his horse and another on the croup, so that he sat as in a sort of chair, but he seemed hardly able to support himself even with this artificial assistance, and his body swayed from side to side as his horse bounded over the sharp curve at the foot of the hill. His mantle was white with dust, and the tiara upon his head was reduced to a shapeless and dusty piece of crumpled linen, while his uncurled hair and tangled beard hung forward together in disorderly and dust-clotted ringlets.

His companion was Zoroaster, fair and erect upon his horse, as though he had not ridden three hundred farsangs in eleven days. There was dust indeed upon his mantle and garments, as upon those of the man he conducted, but his long fair hair and beard blew back from his face as he held his head erect to the breeze he made in riding, and the light steel cap was bright and burnished on his forehead. A slight flush reddened his pale cheeks as he looked upward to the palace, and thought that his ride was over and his errand accomplished. He was weary, almost to death; but his frame was elastic and erect still.

As they rode up the steep, the guards at the outer gate, who had already watched them for twenty minutes as they came up the road, mere moving specks under the white mist, shouted to those within that Zoroaster was returning, and the officer of the gate went at once to announce his coming to the king. Darius himself received the message, and followed the officer down the steps to the tower of the gateway, reaching the open space within, just as the two riders galloped under the square entrance and drew rein upon the pavement of the little court. The spearmen sprang to their feet and filed into rank as the cry came down the steps that the king was approaching, and Zoroaster leaped lightly from his horse, and bid Phraortes do likewise; but the wretched Median could scarce move hand or foot without help, and would have fallen headlong, had not two stout spearmen lifted him to the ground, and held him upon his legs.

Darius marched quickly up to the pair and stood still, while Zoroaster made his brief salutation. Phraortes, who between deadly fatigue and deadly fear of his life, had no strength left in him, fell forward upon his knees as the two soldiers relaxed their hold upon his arms.

"Hail, king of kings! Live for ever!" said Zoroaster. "I have fulfilled thy bidding. He is alive."

Darius laughed grimly as he eyed the prostrate figure of the Median.

"Thou art a faithful servant, Zoroaster," he answered, "and thou ridest as the furies that pursue the souls of the wicked—as the devils of the mountains after a liar. He would not have lasted much farther, this bundle of sweating dust. Get up, fellow!" he said, touching Phraortes's head with his toe. "Thou liest grovelling there like a swine in a ditch."

The soldiers raised the exhausted man to his feet. The king turned to Zoroaster.

"Tell me, thou rider of whirlwinds," he said, laughing, "will a man more readily tell the truth, or speak lies, when he is tired?"

"A man who is tired will do whichever will procure him rest," returned Zoroaster, with a smile.

"Then I will tell this fellow that the sooner he speaks the truth the sooner he may sleep," said the king. Going near to Zoroaster, he added in an undertone: "Before thou thyself restest, go and tell the queen privately that she send away her slaves, and await me and him thou hast brought in a few minutes. This fellow must have a little refreshment, or he will die upon the steps."

Zoroaster turned and went up the broad stairs, and threaded the courts and passages, and mounted to the terrace where he had first met Atossa before the king's apartments. There was no one there, and he was about to enter under the great curtain, when the queen herself came out and met him face to face. Though it was yet very early, she was attired with more than usual care, and the faint colours of her dress and the few ornaments she wore, shone and gleamed brightly in the level beams of the morning sun. She had guessed that Zoroaster would return that day, and she was prepared for him.

As she came suddenly upon him, she gave a little cry, that might well have been feigned.

"What! Are you already returned?" she asked, and the joy her voice expressed was genuine. He looked so godlike as he stood there in the sunlight—her heart leaped for joy of only seeing him.

"Yes—I bear this message from the Great King to the queen. The Great King commands that the queen send away her slaves, and await the king and him I have brought with me, in the space of a few minutes."

"It is well," answered Atossa, "There are no slaves here and I await the king." She was silent a moment. "Are you not glad to have come back?" she asked, presently.

"Yes," said Zoroaster, whose face brightened quickly as he spoke. "I am indeed glad to be here again. Would not any one be glad to have finished such a journey?"

The queen stood with her back to the curtained doorway and could see down the whole length of the balcony to the head of the staircase. Zoroaster faced her and the door. As he spoke, Atossa's quick eyes caught sight of a figure coming quickly up the last steps of the stairway. She recognised Nehushta instantly, but no trembling of her lids or colouring of her cheek, betrayed that she had seen the approach of her enemy. She fixed her deep-blue eyes upon Zoroaster's, and gazing somewhat sadly, she spoke in low and gentle tones:

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