Chapter XII. The Tryst
 

Two days had gone by, and at the appointed hour three figures, wrapped in dark cloaks, might have been seen walking swiftly towards the little entrance of the temple fortress. Although it was near to midnight the city was still astir with men, for this very evening news had reached it that Ithobal was advancing at the head of tens of thousands of the warriors of the Tribes. More, it was rumoured freely that within the next few days the siege of Zimboe would begin. Late as it was, the council had been just summoned to the palace of Sakon to consider the conduct of the defence, while in every street stood knots of men engaged in anxious discussion, and from many a smithy rose the sound of armourers at their work. Here marched parties of soldiers of various races, there came long strings of mules laden with dried flesh and grain; yonder a woman beat her breast, and wept loudly because her three sons had been impressed by order of the council, two of them to serve as archers and the third to carry blocks of stone for the fortifications.

Passing unnoticed through all this crowd and tumult, Aziel, Issachar and Metem entered a winding passage in the temple wall, and came to the little gate. Metem tried it, and whispered:--

"She has kept her word; it is unlocked. Now enter to your love-tryst, holy Issachar."

"Do you not come with us?" asked the Levite.

"No, I am too old for such adventures. Listen, I go to make ready. Within an hour the mules with the prince's bodyguard will stand in the archway near the small gate of the palace, for by now the baggage and its escort await us a day's march from this accursed city. Will you meet me there? No; I think it is best that I should come to your chambers to fetch you, and, I pray you, let there be no delay, for it is dangerous in many ways. When once the prince has done with his tender interview, and wiped away his tears, there should be nothing to stay him, since the farewell cup with Sakon has been already drunk. Enter now swiftly before some prowling priest happens upon you, and pray that you may come out as sound as you go in. Oh! what a sight! A prince of Israel and an aged Levite of established reputation going to keep a tryst at midnight with the high-priestess of Baaltis in the sanctuary of her god! Nay, answer not; there is no time"--and he was gone.

*****

Having passed the gate, Aziel and Issachar crept down the winding passages of stone, groping their path by such light as fell from the narrow line of sky above them, till at length they reached the court of the sanctuary. Here the place was as silent as death, for the noise from the city without could not pierce its towering walls of massive granite.

"It is the very pit of Tophet," murmured Issachar, peering through the dense shadows, "the house of Beelzebub, where his presence dwells. Whither now, Aziel?"

The prince pointed to two objects that were visible in the starlight, and answered:--

"Thither, at the foot of the pillar of El."

"Ah! I remember," said Issachar, "where the accursed woman would have offered sacrifice, and the priests struck me down because I prophesied to them of the wrath to come, and that is now at hand. An ill-omened spot, indeed, and an ill-omened tryst with the fiends for witnesses. Well, lead on, and I pray you to be brief as may be, for this place weighs down my soul, and I feel danger in it--danger to the body and the spirit."

So they went forward. "Be careful," whispered Aziel presently. "The pit of sacrifice is at your feet."

"Yes, yes," he answered, "we walk upon the edge of the pit, and, in truth, I grow fearful, for at the threshold of such places the angel of the Lord deserts us."

"There is nothing to fear," said Aziel. But even as he spoke, although he could not see it, a white face rose above the edge of the pit, like that of some ghost struggling from the tomb, watched them a moment with cold eyes, then disappeared again.

Now they were near the greater pillar, and now from its shadow glided a black-veiled shape.

"Elissa?" murmured Aziel.

"It is I," whispered a soft voice; "but who comes with you?"

"I, Issachar," said the Levite, "who would not suffer that he of whom I am given charge should seek such company alone. Now, priestess, say your say with the prince yonder and let us be gone swiftly from this blood-stained place."

"You speak harsh words to me, Issachar," she said gently, "yet I am most glad that you have come, for, believe me, I sought no lovers' meeting with the prince Aziel. Listen, both of you: you know that they have consecrated me high-priestess of Baaltis against my will. Now, I tell you, Issachar, what I have already told the prince Aziel--that I am no longer a worshipper of Baaltis. Yes, here in her very temple I renounce her, even though she takes my life in vengeance. Oh! since they made me priestess I have been forced to learn all her worship, which before I never even guessed, and to see sights that would chill your blood to hear of them. Now I tell you, prince Aziel and Issachar, that I will bear no more. From El and Baaltis I turn to Him you worship, though, alas! little time is left to me in which to plead for pardon."

"Why is little time left?" broke in Aziel.

"Because my death is very near me, Prince, for if I live, see what a fate is mine. Either I must remain high-priestess of Baaltis and to her day by day bow the knee, and month by month make sacrifice--of what think you? Well, to be plain, of the blood of maids and children. Or, perhaps, should their fears overcome their scruples, I shall be given by the council as a peace-offering to Ithobal.

"I say that I will bear neither of these burdens of blood or shame; they are too heavy for me. Prince, so soon as you are gone I too shall leave this city, not in the body, but in the spirit, searching for peace or sleep. It was for this reason that I sought to speak with you in farewell, since in my weakness I desired that you should learn the truth of the cause and manner of my end.

"Now you know all, and as for me there is no escape, farewell for ever, prince Aziel, whom I have loved, and whom I can scarcely hope to meet again, even beyond the grave." Then with a little despairing motion of her hand she turned to go.

"Stay," said Aziel hoarsely, "we cannot be parted thus; since by your own act you can dare to leave the world, will you not dare to fly this place with me?"

"Perhaps, Prince," she answered with a little laugh, "but would you dare to take me, and if so, would Issachar here suffer it? No, no; go your own path in life, and leave me death--it is the easier way."

"In this matter I am master and not Issachar," said Aziel, "though it be true that should it please him, he can warn the priests of El. Listen, Elissa: either you leave this city with me, or I stay in it with you. You hear me, Issachar?"

"I hear you," said the Levite, "but perchance before you throw more sharp words at my head, you will suffer me to speak. Self-murder is a crime, yet I honour this woman who would shed her own blood, rather than the blood of the innocent in sacrifice to Baal, and who refuses to be given in marriage to one she hates; who, moreover, has found strength and grace to trample on her devil-worship, if so in truth she has. If therefore she will come with us and we can escape with her, why, let her come. Only swear to me, Aziel, that you will make no wife of her till the king, your grandsire, has heard this tale and given judgment on it."

"That I will swear for him," exclaimed Elissa; "is it not so, Aziel?"

"As you will, lady," he answered. "Issachar, you have my word that until then she shall be as my sister, and no more."

"I hear and I believe you," said Issachar, adding: "And now, lady, we go at once, so if you desire to accompany us, come."

"I am ready," she replied, "and the hour is well chosen for I shall not be missed till dawn."

So they turned and left the temple. None stayed or hindered them, yet although they reached the chambers of Aziel in safety, their hearts, which should have been light, were still heavy with the presage of new sorrow to come.

Scarcely could they have been heavier, indeed, had they seen a white- faced woman creep from the pit of death and follow them stealthily till they had passed from the temple into the palace doors, then turn and run at full speed towards the college of the priests of El.

In the chamber of Aziel they found Metem.

"I rejoice to see you back again in safety, since it is more than I thought to do," he said, while they entered, adding, as the black- veiled shape of Elissa followed them into the room, "but who is the third? Ah! I see, the lady Elissa. Does the Baaltis accompany us upon our journey?"

"Yes," answered Aziel shortly.

"Then with her high Grace on the one side and the holy Issachar on the other it should not lack for blessings. Surely that evil must be great from which, separately or together, they are unable to defend us. But, lady, if I may ask it, have you bid farewell to your most honoured father?"

"Torment me not," murmured Elissa.

"Indeed, I did not wish to, though you may remember that not so long ago you threatened to silence me for ever. Well, doubtless your departure is too hurried for farewells, and, fortunately, foreseeing it, I have provided spare mules. So my deeds are kinder than my words. I go to see that all is prepared. Now eat before you start; presently I will return for you," and he left the chamber.

When he had gone they gathered round the table on which stood food, but could touch little of it; for the hearts of all three of them were filled with sad forebodings. Soon they heard a noise as of people talking excitedly outside the palace gates.

"It is Metem with the mules," said Aziel.

"I hope so," answered Elissa.

Again there was silence, which, after a while, was broken by a loud knocking at the door.

"Rise," said Aziel, "Metem comes for us."

"No, no," cried Elissa, "it is Doom that knocks, not Metem."

As the words passed her lips the door was burst open, and through it poured a mob of armed priests, at the head of whom marched the Shadid. By his side was his daughter Mesa, in whose pale face the eyes burned like torches in a wind.

"Did I not tell you so?" she said in a shrill voice, pointing at the three. "Behold the Lady Baaltis and her lover, and with them that priest of a false faith who called down curses upon our city."

"You told us indeed, daughter," answered the Shadid; "pardon us if we were loth to believe that such a thing could be." Then with a cry of rage he added, "Take them."

Now Aziel drew his sword, and sprang in front of Elissa to protect her, but before he could strike a blow it was seized from behind, and he was gripped by many hands, gagged, bound and blindfolded. Then like a man in a dream he felt himself carried away through long passages, till at length he reached an airless place, where the gag and bandages were removed.

"Where am I?" Aziel asked.

"In the vaults of the temple," answered the priests as they left the prison, barring its great door behind them.