Chapter X. The Embassy
 

Weak as she was still with recent illness, half-fainting also from the shock of the terrible and unexpected fate which had overtaken her, Elissa was borne in triumph to the palace that now was hers. Around her gilded litter priestesses danced and sang their wild chants, half- bacchanalian and half-religious; before it marched the priests of El, clashing cymbals and crying, "Make way, make way for the new-born goddess! Make way for her whose throne is upon the horned moon!" while all about the multitude of spectators prostrated themselves in worship.

Elissa was borne in triumph. Vaguely she heard the shouts and music, dimly she saw the dancing-girls and the bowing crowds. But all the while her heart was alive with pain and her brain, crushed beneath the menace of this misery, could grasp nothing clearly save the completeness of her loss. Loss! Yes, she was lost indeed. One short hour ago and she was rejoicing in the presence of the man she loved, and who, as she believed, loved her, while in her mind rose visions of some happy life with him far away from this city and the dark rites of the worshippers of Baal. And now she found herself the chief priestess of that worship which already she had learned to fear if not to hate. More, as its priestess, till death should come to comfort her, she was cut off for ever from him whom she adored, cut off also from the hope of that new spiritual light which had begun to dawn upon her soul.

Elissa looked upon the beautiful women who leapt and sang about her litter, listening to the clash of their ornaments of gold, and as she listened and looked her eyes seemed to gain power to behold the spirits within them. Surely she could see these, dark and hideous things, with shifting countenances, terrible to look on, and themselves wearing in their eyes of flame a stamp of eternal terror, while in her ears the music of their golden necklaces was changed to a clank as of fetters and of instruments of torment. Yes; and there before the dancers in the red cloud of dust which rose from their beating feet, floated the dim shape of that demon of whom she had been chosen the high-priestess.

Look at her mocking, inhuman countenance, and her bent brow of power! Look at her spread and flaming hair and her hundred hands outstretched to grasp the souls of men! Hark! the clamour of the cymbals and the cry of the dancers blended together and became her voice, a dreadful voice that gave greeting to her princess, promising her pride of place and life-long power in payment for her service.

"I desire none of these," her heart seemed to answer; "I desire him only whom I have lost."

"Is it so?" replied the Voice. "Then bid him burn incense upon my altar and take him to yourself. Have I not given you enough of beauty to snare a single soul from among the servants of my enemy the God of the Jews?"

"Nay, nay!" her heart cried; "I will not tempt him to do this evil thing."

"Yea, yea!" mocked the phantom Voice; "for your sake he shall burn incense upon my altar."

*****

The phantasy passed, and now the golden gates of the palace of Baaltis rolled open before Elissa. Now, too, the priestesses bore her to the golden throne shaped like a crescent moon, and threw over her a black veil spangled with stars, symbol of the night. Then having shut out the uninitiated, they worshipped her after their secret fashion till she sank down upon the throne overcome with fear and weariness. Then at last they carried her to that wonder of workmanship and allegorical art, the ivory bed of Baaltis, and laid her down to sleep.

*****

At dawn upon the following day an embassy, headed by Sakon, governor of the city, in whose train were Metem and Aziel, went to the camp of Ithobal. The mission of these envoys was to give the king answer to his suit, for he refused to come to Zimboe unless he were allowed to bring a larger force than it was thought prudent to admit into the city gates. At some distance from the tents they halted, while messengers were sent forward inviting Ithobal to a conference on the plain, as it seemed scarcely safe to trust themselves within the stout thorn fence which had been built about the camp. Metem, who said that he had no fear of the king, went with these men, and on reaching the zeriba was at once bidden to the pavilion of Ithobal. He found the great man pacing its length sullenly.

"What seek you here, Phoenician?" he asked, glancing at him over his shoulder.

"My fee, King. The king was pleased to promise me a hundred ounces of gold if I saved the life of the Lady Elissa. I come, therefore, to assure him that my skill has prevailed against the poisoned arrow of that treacherous dog of the desert, which pierced her hand as she spoke with the prince Aziel the other night, and to claim my reward. Here is a note of the amount," and he produced his tablets.

"If half of what I hear is true, rogue," answered Ithobal savagely, "the tormentor and the headsman alone could satisfy all my debt to you. Say, merchant, what return have you made me for that sackful of gold which you bore hence some few days gone?"

"The best of all returns, King," answered Metem cheerfully, although in truth he began to feel afraid. "I have kept my word, and fulfilled the command of the king. I have made it impossible that the prince Aziel should wed the daughter of Sakon."

"Yes, rogue, you have made it impossible by causing her to be consecrated Baaltis, and thus building a barrier which even I shall find too hard to climb. It is scarcely to be hoped that now she will choose me of her own will, and to offer violence to the Baaltis is a sacrilege from which any man--yes, even a king--may shrink, for such deeds draw the curse of Heaven. Know that for this service I am minded to settle my account with you in a fashion of which you have not thought. Have you heard, Phoenician, that the chiefs of certain of my tribes love to decorate their spear-shafts with the hide of white men, and to bray their flesh into a medicine which gives courage to its eater?"

With this pleasing and suggestive query Ithobal paused, and looked towards the door of the tent as though he were about to call his guard.

Now Metem's blood ran cold, for he knew that this royal savage was not one who uttered idle threats. Yet the coolness and cunning which had so often served him well did not fail him in his need.

"I have heard that your people have strange customs," he answered with a laugh, "but I think that even a spear-shaft would scarcely gain beauty from my wrinkled hide, and if anything, the eating of my flesh would make tradesmen and not warriors of your chiefs. Well, let the jest pass, and listen. King, in all my schemings one thought never crossed my mind, namely, that you were a man to suffer scruples to stand between you and the woman you would win. You think that now she is a goddess? Well, if that be so--and it is not for me to say--who could be a fitter mate for the greatest king upon the earth than a goddess from the heavens? Take her, king Ithobal, take her, and this I promise you, that when your armies are encamped without the walls, the priests of El will absolve you of the crime of aspiring to the fair lips of Baaltis."

"The lips of Baaltis," broke in Ithobal; "do you think that I shall find them sweet when another man has rifled them? Secret chambers are many yonder in the palace of the gods, and doubtless the Jew will find his way there."

"Nay, King, for between these two I have indeed built a wall which cannot be climbed. The worshipper of the Lord of Israel may not traffic with the high-priestess of Ashtoreth. Moreover, I shall bring it about that ere long Prince Aziel's face is set seawards."

"Do that, and I will believe you, merchant, though it would be better if you could bring it about that his face was set earthwards, as I will if I can. Well, this time I spare you, though be sure that if aught miscarry, you shall pay the price, how, I have told you. Now I go to talk with these traders, these outlanders, of Zimboe. Why do you wait? You are dismissed and--alive."

Metem looked steadily at the tablets which he still held in his hand.

"I have heard," he said humbly, "that the king Ithobal, the great king, always pays his debts, and as I--an outlander--shall be leaving Zimboe shortly under his safe conduct, I desire to close this small account."

Ithobal went to the door of his tent and commanded that his treasurer should attend him, bringing money. Presently he came, and at his lord's bidding weighed out one hundred ounces of gold.

"You are right, Phoenician," said Ithobal; "I always pay my debts, sometimes in gold and sometimes in iron. Be careful that I owe you no more, lest you who to-day are paid in gold, to-morrow may receive the iron, weighed out in the fashion of which I have spoken. Now, begone."

Metem gathered up the treasure, and hiding it in his ample robe, bowed himself from the royal presence and out of the thorn-hedged camp.

"Without doubt I have been in danger," he said to himself, wiping his brow, "since at one time that black brute, disregarding the sanctity of an envoy, had it in his mind to torture and to kill me. So, so, king Ithobal, Metem the Phoenician is also an honest merchant who 'always pays his debts,' as you may learn in the market-places of Jerusalem, of Sidon and of Zimboe, and I owe you a heavy bill for the fright you have given me to-day. Little of Elissa's company shall you have if I can help it; she is too good for a cross-bred savage, and if before I go from these barbarian lands I can set a drop of medicine in your wine, or an arrow in your gizzard, upon the word of Metem the Phoenician, it shall be done, king Ithobal."

*****

When Metem reached Sakon and the envoys, he found that a message had already been sent to them announcing that Ithobal would meet them presently upon the plain outside his camp. But still the king did not come; indeed, it was not until Sakon had despatched another messenger, saying that he was about to return to the city, that at length Ithobal appeared at the head of a bodyguard of black troops. Arranging these in line in front of the camp, he came forward, attended by twelve or fourteen counsellors and generals, all of them unarmed. Half-way between his own line and that of the Phoenicians, but out of bowshot of either, he halted.

Thereon Sakon, accompanied by a similar number of priests and nobles, among whom were Aziel and Metem, all of them also unarmed, except for the knives in their girdles, marched out to meet him. Their escort they left drawn up upon the hillside.

"Let us to business, King," said Sakon, when the formal words of salutation had passed. "We have waited long upon your pleasure, and already troops move out from the city to learn what has befallen us."

"Do they then fear that I should ambush ambassadors?" asked Ithobal hotly. "For the rest, is it not right that servants should bide at the door of their king till it is his pleasure to open?"

"I know not what they fear," answered Sakon, "but at least we fear nothing, for we are too many," and he glanced at his soldiers, a thousand strong, upon the hillside. "Nor are the citizens of Zimboe the servants of any man unless he be the king of Tyre."

"That we shall put to proof, Sakon," said Ithobal; "but say, what does the Jew with you?" and he pointed to Aziel. "Is he also an envoy from Zimboe?"

"Nay, King," answered the prince laughing, "but my grandsire, the mighty ruler of Israel, charged me always to take note of the ways of savages in peace and war, that I might learn how to deal with them. Therefore, I sought leave to accompany Sakon upon this embassy."

"Peace, peace!" broke in Sakon. "This is no time for gibes. King Ithobal, since you did not dare to venture yourself again within the walls of our city, we have come to answer the demands you made upon us in the Hall of Audience. You demanded that our fortifications should be thrown down, and this we refuse, since we do not court destruction. You demanded that we should cease to enslave men to labour in the mines, and to this we answer that for every man we take we will pay a tax to his lawful chief, or to you as king. You demanded that the ancient tribute should be doubled. To this, out of love and friendship, and not from fear, we assent, if you will enter into a bond of lasting peace, since it is peace we seek, and not war. King, you have our answer."

"Not all of it, Sakon. How of that first condition--that Lady Elissa the fair, your daughter, should be given me to wife?"

"King, it cannot be, for the gods of heaven have taken this matter from our hands, anointing the lady Elissa their high-priestess."

"Then as I live," answered Ithobal with fury, "I will take her from the hands of the gods and anoint her my dancing-woman. Do you think to make a mock of me, you people of Zimboe, whom I have honoured by desiring one of your daughters in marriage? You seek to trick me with your priests' juggling that you may keep her to be the toy of yonder princeling? So be it, but I tell you that I will tear your city stone from stone, and anoint its ruins with your blood. Yes, your young men shall labour in the mines for me, and your high-born maidens shall wait upon my queens. Listen, you"--and he turned to his generals--"Let the messengers who are ready start east and west, and north and south, to the chiefs whose names you have, bidding them to meet me with their tribesmen, at the time and place appointed. When next I speak with you, Elders of Zimboe, it shall be at the head of a hundred thousand warriors."

"Then, King, on your hands be all the innocent lives that these words of yours have doomed, and may the weight of their wasted blood press you down to ruin and death."

Thus answered Sakon proudly, but with pale lips, for do what they would to hide it, something of the fear they felt for the issue of this war was written on the faces of all his company.

Ithobal turned upon his heel, deigning no reply, but as he went he whispered a word into the ear of two of his captains, great men of war, who stayed behind the rest of his party searching for something upon the ground. Sakon and his counsellors also turned, walking towards their escort, but Aziel lingered a little, fearing no danger, and being curious to learn what the men sought.

"What do you seek, captains?" he asked courteously.

"A gold armlet that one of us has lost," they answered.

Aziel let his eyes wander on the ground, and not far away perceived the armlet half-hidden in a tussock of dry grass, where, indeed, it had been placed.

"Is this the ring?" he asked, lifting it and holding it towards them.

"It is, and we thank you," they answered, advancing to take the ornament.

The next moment, before Aziel even guessed their purpose, the captains had gripped him by either arm and were dragging him at full speed towards their camp. Understanding their treachery and the greatness of his danger, he cried aloud for help. Then throwing himself swiftly to the ground, he set his feet against a stone that chanced to lie in their path in such fashion that the sudden weight tore his right arm from the group of the man that held him. Now, quick as thought, Aziel drew the dagger from his girdle, and, still lying upon his back, plunged it into the shoulder of the second man so that he loosed him in his pain. Next he sprang to his feet, and, leaping to one side to escape the rush of his captors, ran like a deer towards the party of Sakon, who had wheeled round at the sound of his cry.

Ithobal and his men had turned also and sped towards them, but at a little distance they halted, the king shouting aloud:--

"I desired to hold this foreigner, who is the cause of war between us, hostage for your daughter's sake, Sakon, but this time he has escaped me. Well, it matters nothing, for soon my turn will come. Therefore, if you and he are wise, you will send him back to the sea, for thither alone I promise him safe conduct."

Then without more words he walked to his camp, the gates of which were closed behind him.

*****

"Prince Aziel," said Sakon, as they went towards the city, "it is ill to speak such words to an honoured guest, but it cannot be denied that you bring much trouble on my head. Twice now you have nearly perished at the hands of Ithobal, and should that chance, doubtless I must earn the wrath of Israel. On your behalf, also, the city of Zimboe is this day plunged into a war that well may be her last, since it is because you have grown suddenly dear to her that my daughter has continued to refuse the suit of Ithobal, and because of his outraged pride at this refusal that he has raised up the nations against us. Prince, while you remain in this city there is no hope of peace. Do not, therefore, hate me, your servant, if I pray of you to leave us while there is yet time."

"Sakon," answered Aziel, "I thank you for your open speech, and will pay you back in words as honest as your own. Gladly would I go, for here nothing but sorrow has befallen me, were it not for one thing which to you may seem little, but to me, and perhaps to another, is all in all. I love your daughter as I have never loved a woman before, and as my mind is to hers, so is hers to mine. How, then, can I go hence when the going means that I must part from her for ever?"

"How can you stay here, Prince, when the staying means that you must bring her to shame and death, and yourself with her? Say now, are you prepared, for the sake of this maiden, to abandon the worship of your fathers and to become the servant of El and Baaltis?"

"You know well that I am not so prepared, Sakon. For nothing that the world could give me would I do this sin."

"Then, Prince, it is best that you should go, for that and no other is the price you must pay if you would win my daughter Elissa. Should you seek to do so by other means, I tell you that neither your high rank nor the power of my rule and friendship, nor pity for your youth and hers, can save you both from death, since to forgive you then would be to bring down the wrath of its outraged gods upon Zimboe. Oh! Prince, for your own sake and for the sake of her whom both you and I love thus dearly, linger no longer in temptation, but turn your back upon it as a brave man should, for so shall my blessing follow you to the grave and your years be filled with honour."

Aziel covered his eyes with his hand, and thought a while; then he answered:--

"Be it as you will, friend. I go, but I go broken-hearted."