Chapter IX. Greeting to the Baaltis
 

When Metem accepted bribes from Issachar and from Ithobal, in consideration of his finding means to make the union of Aziel and Elissa impossible, he had already thought out his scheme. It was one which, while promoting, as he considered, the true welfare of the lovers, if successful would separate them effectually and for ever.

It will be remembered that Elissa had explained to the prince how, on the death of the lady Baaltis, another woman was elected by the colleges of the priests and priestesses to fill her place. This lady could marry, indeed she was expected to do so, but her husband must take the title of Shadid, and for her lifetime act as high-priest of El. Therefore, thought Metem, if it could be brought about that Elissa should be chosen as the new Baaltis, it was obvious that there would be an end of the possibility of her marriage to Aziel. Then, in order to wed her, he must renounce his own religion--a thing which no Jew would do--and pose as the earthly incarnation of one whom he considered a false divinity or a devil.

Indeed, not only marriage, but any further intimacy between the pair would be rendered impracticable, for upon this point the religious law, lax enough in many particulars, was very strict. In fact, so strict was it that for the lady Baaltis of the day to be found alone with any man meant death to her and him. The reason of this severity was that she was supposed to represent the goddess; and her husband, the Shadid, a god, so that any questionable behaviour on her part became an insult to the most powerful divinities of Heaven, which could only be atoned by the death of their unworthy incarnations. That these laws were actual and not formal only was proved by the instance that within the hundred years before the birth of Elissa, a lady Baaltis had been executed for some such offence, having been hurled indeed from the topmost pinnacle of the fortress above the temple to the foot of the precipice beneath.

All these sacerdotal customs were familiar to Metem, who argued from them that to procure the nomination of Elissa as the Baaltis would be to build an impassable wall between her and the prince Aziel. Also, by way of compensation, that office would confer upon her the highest dignity and honour which could be attained by any woman in the city. Moreover, her election would place her beyond the reach of the persecutions of Ithobal, since as lady Baaltis she was entitled to choose her own husband without hindrance or appeal, provided only that he was of pure white blood, which Ithobal was not.

Having thought the matter out, and convinced himself that such a course would not only benefit his own pocket, but prove to the lasting advantage of all concerned, Metem, filled with a glow of righteous zeal, set about his task with the promptitude and cunning of his race. It was not an easy task, for although she had enemies and rivals, the daughter of the dead Baaltis, Mesa by name, was considered to be certain of election at the poll of the priests and priestesses. This ceremony was to take place within two days. Nothing discouraged, however, by the scant time at his disposal or other difficulties, without her knowledge or that of her father, Metem began his canvass on behalf of Elissa.

First with a great sum of gold he bought over the ex-Shadid, the husband of the late lady Baaltis. As it chanced, this worthy had quarrelled with his daughter. Therefore it followed that he would prefer to see some stranger chosen in her place in the hope that, notwithstanding his years, by choosing him in marriage she might confirm him in his position of spouse to the goddess.

All Metem's further negotiations need not be followed: money played a part in most of them; jealousy and dislike in some. A few there were also whom he won over by urging the beauty and wisdom of Elissa, and her extraordinary fitness for the post, as evinced by her recent inspiration in the temple! He found his most powerful allies, however, among the members of the council of the city. To these grandees he pointed out that Elissa was a woman of great strength of character, who would certainly never consent to be forced into a marriage with Ithobal, although her refusal should mean a desperate war, and that her father was so much under her influence that he could not be brought to put pressure upon her. Therefore it was obvious that the only way out of the difficulty was her election as Baaltis. This must prove a perfect answer to the suit of the savage king, since the goddess could not be compelled, and even Ithobal, fearing the vengeance of Heaven, would shrink from offering her violence.

There support gained, having first sworn him to secrecy, he attacked Sakon himself, using similar arguments with him. He pointed out, in addition, that if the governor hoped to see his daughter married to prince Aziel, who was in love with her, however dazzling might be the prospects of such a match, it would certainly bring upon him the present wrath of Ithobal, and, in all probability, future trouble with the Courts of Egypt, of Israel, and through them, of Tyre. Thus working in many ways, Metem laboured incessantly to win his end, so that when at last the hour of election came he awaited its issue, fairly confident of success.

It was on this same afternoon that for the first time since she had received the arrow which was meant for his heart, Aziel was admitted to see Elissa. Now at length her recovery was certain, although she had not shaken off her weakness, and her right arm and wrist were still stiff and swollen. Except for two or three of her women, who were seated at their work behind a screen near the far end of the great chamber, she was alone, lying upon a couch in the recess of the window-place. Advancing to her, Aziel bent down to kiss her wounded hand.

"Nay," said Elissa, hiding it beneath the folds of her robe, "it is still black and unsightly with the poison."

"The more reason that I should kiss it, seeing how the stain came there," he answered.

Her eyes met his, and she whispered, "Not my hand, but my brow, Prince, for so I shall be crowned."

He pressed his lips upon her forehead, and replied:--

"Queen of my heart you are already, and though the throne be humble it is sure. The life you saved is yours, and no other's."

"I did but repay a debt," she answered; "but speak of it no more. Gladly would I have died to save you; should such choice arise, would you do so for me, I wonder?"

"There is little need to ask such a question, lady; for your sake I would not only die, I would even endure shame--that is worse than death."

"Sweet words, Aziel," she answered, smiling, "of which we shall learn the value when the hour of trial comes, as come, I think, it will. You told me but now that you were mine, and no other's; but is it so? I have heard the story of a certain princess of Khem with whom your name was mingled. Tell me, if you will, what was it that set you journeying to this far city of ours?"

"The desire to find you," he answered smiling; then seeing that she still looked at him with questioning eyes, he added, "Nay, this is the truth, if you seek truth. Indeed, it is the best that I should tell you, since it seems that already you have heard something of the tale. A while ago I was sent to the Court of the Pharaoh of Egypt, by the will of my grandsire, the king of Israel, upon an embassy of friendship, and to escort thence a certain beautiful princess, my cousin, who was affianced by treaty to an uncle of mine, a great prince of Israel. This I did, showing to the lady courtesy, and no more. But the end of the matter was that when we came to Jerusalem the princess refused to be married to my uncle, to whom she was betrothed----" and he hesitated.

"Nay, be not timid, Prince," said Elissa sharply; "continue, I pray you. I have heard that the lady added somewhat to her refusal."

"That is so, Elissa. She declared before the king that she would wed no man except myself only, whereon my uncle was very angry, and accused me of playing him false, which, indeed, I had not done."

"Although the lady was so fair, Aziel? But what said the great king?"

"He said that never having seen him to whom she was affianced, he would not suffer that she should be forced into marriage with him against her will. Yet that her will might be uninfluenced, he commanded that I should be sent upon a long journey. That was his judgment, lady."

"Yes, but not all of it; surely he added other words?" she broke in eagerly.

"He added," continued Aziel, with some reluctance, "that if while I was on this journey the princess changed her mind, and chose to wed my uncle, it would be well. But, when I returned from it, if she had not changed her mind, and chose--to marry me--then it would be well also, and, though he was little pleased, with this saying my uncle must be satisfied."

"It does not satisfy me, prince Aziel," Elissa answered, the tears starting to her dark eyes. "I know full well that the lady will not change her mind, and take a man who is in years, and whom she hates, in place of one who is young, and whom she loves. Therefore, when you return hence to Jerusalem, by the king's command you will wed her."

"Nay, Elissa; if I am already married that cannot be," he said.

"In Judea, Prince, I am told that men take more wives than one; also, they divorce them," she replied; then added, "Oh, return not there where I shall lose you. If, indeed, you love me, I pray you return not there."

Before he could answer, a sound of singing and of all sorts of music caught Aziel's ear. Looking through the casement, he saw a great procession of the priests and priestesses of El and Baaltis clad in their festal robes and accompanied by many dignitaries of the city, a multitude of people and bands of musicians, advancing across the square towards the door of the palace.

"Why, what passes?" he exclaimed. As he spoke the door opened and two richly arrayed heralds, wands of office in their hands, entered and prostrated themselves before Elissa.

"Greeting to you, most noble and blessed lady, the chosen of the gods!" they cried with one voice. "Prepare, we beseech you, to hear glad tidings, and to receive those who are sent to tell them."

"Glad tidings?" said Elissa. "Has Ithobal then withdrawn his suit?"

"Nay, lady; it is not of Ithobal that the messengers come to speak."

"Then I cannot receive them," she said, sinking back in apprehension. "I am still ill and weak, and I pray to be excused."

"Nay, lady," answered the herald, "that which they have to tell will cure your sickness."

Again Elissa protested. Before the words had left her lips there appeared in the doorway he who had been husband of the dead Baaltis, followed by priests and priestesses, by Sakon her father, with whom was Metem, and many other nobles and dignitaries.

"All hail, lady!" they cried, prostrating themselves before her. "All hail, lady, chosen of the gods!"

Elissa looked at them bewildered.

"Your pardon," she said, "I do not understand."

Then, rising from his knees, he who was still the Shadid until his successor was appointed, addressed her as spokesman.

"Listen," he said, "and learn, lady, the great thing that has befallen you. Know, O divine One, that by the inspiration of El and Baaltis, rulers of the heavens, the colleges of the priests and priestesses of the city, following the voice of the oracles and the pointing of the omens, have set you in that high place which death has emptied. Greeting to you, holder of the spirit of the goddess! Greeting to the Baaltis!"

"I did not seek this honour," she murmured in the silence that followed, "and I refuse it. The throne of the goddess is Mesa's right; let her take it, or if she will not, then find some other woman who is more worthy."

"Lady," said the Shadid, "these words become you well, but it has pleased the gods to choose you and not my daughter, the lady Mesa, or any other woman, and the choice of the gods may not be set aside. Till death shall take you, you and you alone are the lady Baaltis whom we obey."

"Must I then be made divine against my will," she pleaded, and turned to Aziel as though for counsel.

"Be pleased to stand back, prince Aziel," said the stern voice of the Shadid, interposing. "Remember that henceforth no man may speak to the Baaltis save he whom she names with the name of Shadid to be her husband. Henceforward you are parted, since to seek her company would be to cause her death."

Now understanding that the doom of life-long separation had fallen upon them like the sudden sword of fate, Aziel and Elissa gazed at each other in despair. Then, before either of them could speak a word, at a sign from the Shadid, the priestesses closed round Elissa. Throwing a white veil over her head, they broke into a joyful pćan of song, and half-led, half-carried her from the chamber to enthrone her in the palace of the goddess, which was henceforth to be her home.

Presently all the company, including the waiting women, having joined the procession, the chamber was empty, with the exception of Aziel, Metem and Issachar the Levite, who, drawn by the sound of singing, had entered the place unnoticed.

"Take comfort, Prince," said the Phoenician in a half-bantering voice, "if you and the lady Baaltis are truly dear to each other she may still be yours, for you have but to bow the knee to El, and she will name you Shadid and husband."

"Blaspheme not," cried Issachar sternly. "Shall a worshipper of the God of Israel do sacrifice to a demon to win a woman's smile?"

"That time will prove," answered Metem, shrugging his shoulders; "at least it is certain that he will win it in no other way. Prince," he added, changing his tone, "if you have any such thoughts, abandon them, I pray of you, for on this matter the law may not be broken. The man spoke truth, moreover, when he told you that should you be found with the Baaltis, not being her husband, you would cause her death."

Aziel took no notice of his words, but turning to the Levite, he asked in a quiet voice:--

"Did you plot this to separate us, Issachar? If so, you shall live to mourn the deed."

"Listen, Prince," broke in Metem, "it was not Issachar who plotted that the lady Elissa should be chosen Baaltis, but I, or at least I helped the plot. Shall I tell you why I did this? It was to save you and her, and if possible to prevent a great war also. You could not wed this woman who is not of your race, or rank, or religion; and if you could, it would bring about a struggle that must cost thousands their lives, and this city its wealth. Nor could you make of her less than a wife, seeing that she is well-born and that you are her father's guest. Therefore for your own sake it is best that she should be placed beyond your reach. For her sake also it is best, since she is ambitious and born to rule, who henceforth will be clothed with power for all her days. Moreover, had it been otherwise, in the end she must have passed to that savage Ithobal, whom she hates. Now this is scarcely possible, for the lady Baaltis can wed no man who is not of pure white blood, and whom she does not choose of her own free will. That is a decree which may not be broken even by Ithobal. So revile me not, but thank me, though for a little while your heart be sore."

"My heart is sore indeed," answered Aziel, "and if you think your words be wise, their medicine does not soothe, Phoenician. You may have laboured for my welfare and for that of the lady Elissa, or, like the huckster that you are, for your own advantage, or for both--I know not, and do not care to know. But this I know, that you, and Issachar also, are striving to snare Fate in a web of sand, and that Fate will be too strong for it and you. I love this woman and she loves me, because such is our destiny, and no barriers which man may build can serve to separate us. Also of this I am assured, that by your plots you draw the evils you would ward away upon the heads of us all, for from them shall spring war, and deaths, and misery.

"For the rest, do not think, Metem and Issachar, that I, whom you betrayed, and the woman you have ruined with a crown of greatness she did not seek, are clay to be moulded at your will. It is another hand than yours which fashioned the vessel of our destiny; nor can you stay our lips from drinking of the pure wine that fills it. Farewell," and with a grave inclination of the head he left the room.

Metem watched him go, then he turned to Issachar and said:--

"I have earned my hire well, and you must pay the price, but now it troubles me to think that I touched this business. Why it is I cannot say, but it comes upon me that the prince speaks truth, and that no plot of ours can avail to separate these two who were born to each other, although it well may happen that we shall unite them in death alone. Issachar," he added with fierce conviction, "I will not take your gold, for it is the price of blood! I tell you it is the price of blood!"

"Take it or no, as you will, Phoenician," answered the Levite; "at least I am well pleased that the promise of it bought your service. Even should the prince Aziel discharge this day's work with his young life, it is better that he should perish in the body than that he should lose his soul for the bribe of a woman's passing beauty. Whatever else be lost, that is saved to him, since those sorceress lips of hers are set beyond his reach. An Israelite cannot mate with the oracle of Baaltis, Metem."

"You say so, Issachar, but I have seen men climb high to pluck such fruit. Yes, I have seen them climb even when they knew that they must fall before the fruit was reached."

Then he went also, leaving Issachar alone and oppressed with a dread of the future which was none the less real because it could not be defined.