Chapter XI. Metem Sells Images
 

Upon reaching the palace, Aziel went to the apartments of Issachar. Finding no keeper at the door, he entered, to discover the old priest kneeling in prayer at the window, which faced towards Jerusalem. So absorbed was he in his devotions that it was not until he had ended them and risen that Issachar saw Aziel standing in the chamber.

"Behold, an answer to my prayer," he said. "My son, they told me that some fresh danger had overtaken you, though none knew its issue. Therefore it was that I prayed, and now I see you unharmed." And taking him in his arms, he embraced him.

"It is true that I have been in danger, father," answered Aziel, and he told him the story of his escape from Ithobal.

"Did I not pray thee not to accompany this embassy?"

"Yes, father, yet I have returned in safety. Listen: I come with tidings which you will think good. Not an hour ago I promised Sakon that I would leave Zimboe, where it seems my presence breeds much trouble."

"Good tidings, indeed!" exclaimed Issachar, "and never shall I know a peaceful hour until we have seen the last of the towers of this doomed city and its accursed people of devil-worshippers."

"Yes, good for you, father, but for me most ill, for here I shall leave my youth and happiness. Nay, I know what you think; that this is but some passing fancy bred of the pleasant beauty of a woman, but it is not so. I say that from the moment when first I saw Elissa, she became life of my life, and soul of my soul and that I go hence beggared of joy and hope, and carrying with me a cankering memory which shall eat my heart away. You deem her a witch, one to whom Baaltis has given power to drag the minds of men to their destruction, but I tell you that her only spell is the spell of her love for me, also that she whom you named so grossly is no longer the servant of the demon Baaltis."

"Elissa not the servant of Baaltis? How comes she then to be her high- priestess? Aziel, your passion has made you mad."

'She is high-priestess because Metem and others brought about her election without her will, urged on to it by I know not whom." And he looked hard at Issachar, who turned away. "But what matters it who did the ill deed," he continued, "since this, at least, is certain, that here my presence breeds sorrow and bloodshed, and therefore I must go as I have promised."

"When do we depart, Prince?" queried Issachar.

"I know not, it is naught to me. Here comes Metem, ask of him."

"Metem," said the Levite, "the prince desires to leave Zimboe and march to the coast, there to take ship to Tyre. When can your caravan be ready?"

"So I have heard, Issachar, for Sakon tells me that he has come to an agreement with the prince upon this matter. Well, I am glad to learn it, for troubles thicken here, and I think that the woe you prophesied is not far from this city of Zimboe where every man seeks to serve his own hand, and is ready to sell his neighbour. When can the caravan be got ready? Well, the night after next; at least, we can start that night. To-morrow evening, so soon as the sun is down, I will send on the camels by ones and twos, and with them the baggage and treasure, to a secret place I know of in the mountains, where we and the prince's guard can follow upon the mules and join them. As it chances, I have a safe conduct from Ithobal. Still I should not wish to put his troops into temptation by marching through them with twenty laden camels, or to lose certain earnings of my own that will be hidden in the baggage. Moreover, if our departure becomes known, half the city would wish to join us, having no love of soldiering, and misdoubting them much of the issue of this war with Ithobal."

"As you will," said Issachar, "you are captain of the caravan, and charged with the safety of the prince upon his journeyings. I am ready whenever you appoint, and the quicker that hour comes, the more praise you will have from me."

"Come with me, I wish to speak with you," said Aziel to the Phoenician as they left the presence of Issachar. "Listen," he added, when they had reached his chamber, "we leave this city soon, and I have farewells to make."

"To the Baaltis?" suggested Metem.

"To the lady Elissa. I desire to send her a letter of farewell; can you deliver it into her own hand?"

"It may be managed, Prince, at a price--nay, from you I ask no price. I have still some images that I wish to sell, and we merchants go everywhere, even into the presence of the Baaltis if it pleases her to admit them. Write your scroll and I will take it, though, to be plain, it is not a task which I should have sought."

So Aziel wrote slowly and with care. Then having sealed the writing he gave it to Metem.

"Your face is sat, Prince," he said, as he hid it in his robe, "but, believe me, you are doing what is right and wise."

"It may be so," answered Aziel, "yet I would rather die than do it, and may my curse lie heavy upon the heads of those who have so wrought that it must be done. Now, I pray you, deliver this scroll into the hands of her you know, and bring me the answer if there be any, betraying it to none, for I will double whatever sum is offered for that treachery."

"Have no fear, Prince," said Metem quietly, but without taking offence, "this errand is undertaken for friendship, not for profit. The risk is mine alone; the gain--or loss--is yours."

*****

An hour later the Phoenician stood in the palace of the gods, demanding, under permit from Sakon, governor of the city, to be admitted into the presence of the Baaltis, to whom he desired to sell certain sacred images cunningly fashioned in gold. Presently it was announced that he was allowed to approach, and the officers of the temple led him through guarded passages, to the private chambers of the priestesses. Here he found Elissa in a long, low hall, sweet with scented woods, rich with gold, and supported by pillars of cedar.

She was seated alone at the far end of this hall, beneath the window- plate, clad in her white robes of office, richly broidered with emblems of the moon. Her women, most of whom were employed in needle- work, though some whispered idly to each other, were gathered at the lower end of the hall near to its door.

Metem saluted them as he entered, and they detained him, answering his greeting by requests for news and with jests, not too refined, or by demands for presents of jewels, in return for which they promised him the blessings of the goddess. To each he made some apt reply, for even the priestesses of Baaltis could not abash Metem. But while he bandied words, his quick eyes noted one of their number who did not join in this play. She was a spare, thin-lipped woman whom he knew for Mesa, the daughter of the dead Baaltis, who had been a rival candidate for the throne of the high-priestess when Elissa was chosen in her place.

When he entered the hall Mesa was seated upon a canvas stool, a little apart from the others, her chin resting upon her hand, staring with an evil look towards the place where Elissa was enthroned. Nor did her face grow more gentle at the sight of the cunning merchant, for she knew well it was through his plots and bribery that she had been ousted from her mother's place.

"A woman to be feared," thought Metem to himself as, shaking off the priestesses, he passed her upon his way up the long chamber. Presently he had reached the end of it, and was saluting the presence of the Baaltis by kneeling and touching the carpet with his brow.

"Rise, Metem," said Elissa, "and set out your business, for the hour of the sunset prayer is at hand, and I cannot talk long with you."

So he rose, and, looking at her while he laid out his store of images, saw that her face was sad, and that her eyes were full of a strange fear.

"Lady," he said, "on the second night from now I depart from this city of yours, and glad shall I be to leave it living. Therefore I have brought you these four priceless images of the most splendid workmanship of Tyre, thinking that it might please you to purchase them for the service of the goddess."

"You depart," she whispered; "alone?"

"No lady, not alone; the holy Issachar goes with me, also the escort of the prince Aziel--and the prince himself, whose presence is no longer desired in Zimboe." Here he stopped, for he saw that Elissa was about to betray her agitation, and whispered, "Be not foolish, for you are watched; I have a letter for you. Lady," he continued in a louder voice, "if it will please you to examine this precious image in the light, you will no longer hesitate or think the price too high," and bowing low he led the way behind the throne, whither Elissa followed him.

Now they were standing beneath the window-place, which they faced, and hidden from the gaze of the women by the gilded back of the high seat.

"Here," he said, thrusting the parchment into her hand, "read quickly, and return it to me."

She snatched the roll from him, and as her eyes devoured the lines, her face fell in, and her lips grew pale with anguish.

"Be brave," murmured Metem, for his heart was stirred to pity; "it is best for all that he should go."

"For him, perchance it is best," she answered; as with an unwilling hand she gave him back the letter which she dared not keep, "but what of me? Oh! Metem, what of me?"

"Lady," he said sadly, "I have no words to soothe your sorrow save that the gods have willed it thus."

"What gods?" she asked fiercely; "not those they bid me worship." She shuddered, then went on, "Metem, be pitiful! Oh! if ever you have loved a woman, or have been loved of one, for her sake be pitiful. I must see him for the last time in farewell, and you can help me to it."

"I! In the name of Baal, how?"

"When do you have to leave the city, Metem?"

"At moonrise on the night after next."

"Then an hour before moonrise I will be in the temple, whither I can come by the secret way that leads thither from this palace, and he can enter there, for the little gate shall be left unbarred. Pray him to meet me, then--for the last time."

"Lady," he urged, "this is but madness, and I refuse. You must find another messenger."

"Madness or not it is my will, and beware how you thwart me in it, Metem, for at least I am the Lady Baaltis, and have power to kill without question. I swear to you that if I do not see him, you shall never leave this city living."

"A shrewd argument, and to the point," said Metem reflectively. "Well, I have prepared myself a rock-hewn tomb at Tyre, and do not wish that my graven sarcophagus of best Egyptian alabaster should be wasted, or sold to some upstart for a song."

"As assuredly it will be, if you do not obey me in this matter, Metem. Remember--an hour before moonrise, at the foot of the pillar of El in the inner court of the temple."

As she spoke Metem started, for his quick ears had caught a sound.

"O Queen divine," he said in a loud voice, as he led the way to the front of the throne, "you are a hard bargainer! Were there many such, a poor trader could not make a living. Ah! here is one who knows the value of such priceless works of art," and he pointed to Mesa, who, with folded arms and downcast eyes, stood within five paces of the throne, as near, indeed, as custom allowed her to approach. "Lady," he went on addressing you, "you will have heard the price I asked; say, now, is it too much?"

"I have heard nothing, sir. I stand here, waiting the return of my holy mistress that I may remind her that the hour of sunset prayer is at hand."

"Would that I had so fair a mentor," exclaimed Metem, "for then I should lose less time." But to himself he said, "She has heard something, though I think but little," then added aloud: "Well judge between us, lady. Is fifty golden shekels too much for these images which have been blessed and sprinkled with the blood of children by the high priest of Baal at Sidon?"

Mesa lifted her cold eyes and looked at them. "I think it too much," she said, "but it is for the lady Baaltis to judge. Who am I that I should open my lips in the presence of the lady Baaltis?"

"I have appealed to the oracle, and it has spoken against me," said Metem, wringing his hands in affected dismay. "Well, I abide the result. Queen, you offered me forty shekels and for forty you shall take them, for the honour of the holy gods, though in truth I lose ten shekels by the bargain. Give your order to the treasurer, and he will pay me to-morrow. So now farewell," and bowing till his forehead touched the ground, he kissed the hem of her robe.

Elissa bent her head in acknowledgment of the salute, and as he rose her eyes met his. In them was written a warning which he could not fail to understand, and although she did not speak, her lips seemed to shape the word, "Remember."

Ten minutes later Metem stood in the chamber of Aziel.

"Has she seen the letter, and what did she answer?" asked the prince, springing up almost as he passed the threshold.

"In the name of all the gods of all the nations I pray you not to speak so loud," answered Metem when he had closed the door and looked suspiciously about him. "Oh! if ever I find myself safe in Tyre again, I vow a gift, and no mean one, to each of them that has a temple there, and they are many; for no single god is strong enough to bring me safe out of this trouble. Have I seen the lady Elissa? Oh, yes, I have seen her. And what think you that this innocent lamb, this undefiled dove of yours, threatens me with now? Death! nothing less than death, if I will not carry out her foolish wishes. More, she means the threat, and has the strength to fulfil it, for to the lady Baaltis is given power over the lives of men, or at the least, if she takes life none question the authority of the goddess. Unless I do her will I am a dead man, and that is the reward I get for mixing myself up in your mad love affairs."

"Hold!" broke in Aziel, "and tell me, man, what is her will?"

"Her will is--what do you think? To meet you in farewell an hour before you leave this city. Well, as my throat is at stake, by Baal! it shall be gratified if I can find the means, though I tell you that it is madness and nothing else. But listen to the story----" and he repeated all that had passed. "Now," he added, "are you ready to take the risk, Prince?"

"I should be a coward indeed if I did not," answered Aziel, "when she, a woman, dares a heavier."

"And I am a coward, that is why I take it, for otherwise I also must dare a heavier. But what of Issachar? This meeting can scarcely be kept a secret from him."

Aziel thought awhile and said:--

"Go fetch him here." So Metem went, to return presently with the Levite, to whom, without further ado, the prince told all, hiding nothing.

Issachar listened in silence. When both Aziel and Metem had done speaking, he said:--

"At least, I thank you, Prince, for being open with me; and now without more words I pray you to abandon this rash plan, which can end only in pain, and perhaps in death."

"Abandon it not, Prince," interrupted Metem, "seeing that if you do it will certainly end in my death, for the girl is mad, and will have her way. Or if she does not, then I must pay the price."

"Have no fear," answered Aziel smiling. "Issachar, this must be done or----"

"Or what, Prince?"

"I will not leave the city. It is true that Sakon may thrust me from it, but it shall be as a dead man. Nay, waste no words, since she desires it; I must and will meet the Lady Elissa for the last time, not as lover meets lover, but as those meet who part for ever in the world."

"You say so, Prince; then have I your permission to accompany you?"

"Yes, if you wish it, Issachar; but there is danger."

"Danger! What care I for danger? The will of Heaven be done to me. So be it, we will go together, but the end of it is not with us."