Chapter XIII. The Sacrilege of Aziel
 

How long he lay in his dungeon, lost in bitter thought and tormented by fears for Elissa, Aziel could not tell, for no light came there to mark the passage of the hours. In the tumult of his mind, one terrible thought grew clear and ever clearer; he and Elissa had been taken red- handed, and must pay the price of their sin against the religious customs of the city. For the Baaltis to be found with any man who was not her husband meant death to him and her, a doom from which there was little chance of escape.

Well, to his own fate he was almost indifferent, but for Elissa and Issachar he mourned bitterly. Truly the Levite and Metem had been wise when they cautioned him, for her sake and his own, to have nothing to do with a priestess of Baal. But he had not listened; his heart would not let him listen--and now, unless they were saved by a miracle--or Metem--in the fulness of their youth and love, the lives of both of them were forfeited.

Worn out with sore fears and vain regrets Aziel fell at length into a heavy sleep. He was awakened by the opening of the door of his dungeon, and the entry of priests--grim, silent men who seized and blindfolded him. Then they led him away up many stairs, and along paths so steep that from time to time they paused to rest, till at length he knew, by the sound of voices, that he had reached some place where people were assembled. Here the bandage was removed from his eyes. He stepped backwards, recoiling involuntarily at the glare of light that poured upon him from the setting sun, whereon, uttering an exclamation, those who stood near seized and held him. Presently he saw the reason. He was standing on the brink of a precipice at the back of and dominating the dim and shadow-clad city, while far beneath him lay a gloomy rift along which ran the trade road to the coast.

Here in this dizzy spot was a wide space of rock, walled in upon three sides. The precipice formed the fourth side of its square, in which, seated upon stones that seemed to have been set there in semi-circles to serve as judgment chairs, were gathered the head priests and priestesses of El and Baaltis, clad in their sacerdotal robes. To the right and left of these stood knots of favoured spectators, among whom Aziel recognised Metem and Sakon, while at his side, but separated from him by armed priests, were Elissa herself, wrapped in a dark veil, and Issachar. Lastly, in front of him, a fire flickered upon a little altar, and behind the altar stood a shrine containing a symbolical effigy of Baaltis fashioned of gold, ivory and wood to the shape of a woman with a hundred breasts.

Seeing all this, Aziel understood that they three had been brought here for trial, and that the priests and priestesses before him were their judges. Indeed, he remembered that the place had been pointed out to him as one where those who had offended against the gods were carried for judgment. Thence, if found guilty, such unfortunates were hurled down the face of the precipice and left, a shapeless mass of broken bone, to crumble on the roadway at its foot.

After a long and solemn pause, at a sign from the Shadid, he who had been the husband of the dead Baaltis, the veil was removed from Elissa. At once she turned, looked at Aziel, and smiled sadly.

"Do you know the fate that waits us?" the prince asked of Issachar in Hebrew.

"I know, and I am ready," answered the old Levite, "for since my soul is safe I care little what these dogs may do to my body. But, oh! my son, I weep for you, and cursed be the hour when first you saw that woman's face."

"Spare to reproach me in my misfortune," murmured Elissa; "have I not enough to bear, knowing that I have brought death upon him I love? Oh! curse me not, but pray that my sins may be forgiven me."

"That I will do gladly, daughter," replied Issachar more gently, "the more so that, although you seem to be the cause of them, these things can have happened only by the will of Heaven. Therefore I was wrong to revile you, and I ask your pardon."

Before she could answer the Shadid commanded silence. At the same moment the woman Mesa stepped from behind the effigy of the goddess on the shrine.

"Who are you and what do you here?" asked the Shadid, as though he did not know her.

"I am Mesa, the daughter of her who was the lady Baaltis," she answered, "and my rank is that of Mother of the priestesses of Baaltis. I appear to give true evidence against her, who is the anointed Baaltis, against the Israelitish stranger named Aziel, and the priest of the Lord of the Jews."

"Lay your hand upon the altar and speak, but beware what you speak," said the Shadid.

Mesa bowed her head, took the oath of truth by touching the altar with her fingers, and began:--

"From the time that she was appointed I have been suspicious of the lady Baaltis."

"Why were you suspicious?" asked the Shadid.

The witness let her eyes wander towards Metem, then hesitated. Evidently for some reason of her own she did not wish to implicate him.

"I was suspicious," she answered, "because of certain words that came from the lips of the Baaltis, when she had been thrown into the holy trance before the fire of sacrifice. As is my accustomed part, I bent over her to hear and to announce the message of the gods, but in place of the hallowed words there issued babblings about this Hebrew stranger and of a meeting to be held with him at one hour before moonrise by the pillar of El in the courtyard of the temple. Thereafter for several nights as was my duty I hid myself in the pit of offerings in the courtyard and watched. Last night at an hour before the moonrise the Lady Baaltis came disguised by the secret way and waited at the pillar, where presently she was joined by the Jew Aziel and the Levite, who spoke with her.

"What they said I could not hear, because they were too far from me, but at length they left the temple and I traced them to the chambers of the Jew Aziel, in the palace of Sakon. Then, Shadid, I warned you, and the priests and you accompanied me and took them. Now, as Mother of the priestesses, I demand that justice be done upon these wicked ones, according to the ancient custom, lest the curse of Baaltis should fall upon this city."

When she had finished her evidence, with a cold stare of triumphant hate at her rival, Mesa stepped to one side.

"You have heard," said the Shadid addressing his fellow-judges. Do you need further testimony? If so, it must be brief, for the sun sinks."

"Nay," answered the spokesman, "for with you we took the three of them together in the chamber of the prince Aziel. Set out the law of this matter, O Judge, and let justice be done according to the strict letter of the law--justice without fear or favour."

"Hearken," said the Shadid. "Last night this woman Elissa, the daughter of Sakon, being the lady Baaltis duly elected, met men secretly in the courts of the temple and accompanied them, or one of them, to the chamber of Aziel, a prince of Israel, the guest of Sakon. Whether or no she was about to fly with him from the city which he should have left last night, we cannot tell, and it is needless to inquire, at least she was with him. This, however, is sure, that they did not sin in ignorance of our law, since with my own mouth I warned them both that if the lady Baaltis consorts with any man not her husband duly named by her according to her right, she must die and her accomplice with her. Therefore, Aziel the Israelite, we give you to death, dooming you presently to be hurled from the edge of yonder precipice."

"I am in your power," said the prince proudly, "and you can murder if you will, because, forsooth, I have offended against some law of Baal, but I tell you, priest, that there are kings in Jerusalem and Egypt who will demand my blood at your hands. I have nothing more to say except to beseech you to spare the life of the lady Elissa, since the fault of the meeting was not hers, but mine."

"Prince," answered the Shadid gravely, "we know your rank and we know also that your blood will be required at our hands, but we who serve our gods, whose vengeance is so swift and terrible, cannot betray their law for the fear of any earthly kings. Yet, thus says this same law, it is not needful that you should die since for you there is a way of escape that leads to safety and great honour, and she who was the cause of your sin is the mistress of its gate. Elissa, holder of the spirit of Baaltis upon earth, if it be your pleasure to name this man husband before us all, then as the spouse of Baaltis he goes free, for he whom the Baaltis chooses cannot refuse her gift of love, but for so long as she shall live must rule with her as Shadid of El. But if you name him not, then as I have said, he must die, and now. Speak."

"It seems that my choice is small," said Elissa with a faint smile. "Praying you to pardon me for the deed, to save your life, prince Aziel, according to the ancient custom and privilege of the Baaltis, I name you consort and husband."

Now Aziel was about to answer her when the Shadid broke in hurriedly, "So be it," he said. "Lady, we hear your choice, and we accept it as we must, but not yet, prince Aziel, can you take your wife and with her my place and power. Your life is safe indeed, for since the Baaltis, being unwed, names you as her mate, you have done no sin. Yet she has sinned and doom awaits her, for against the law she has chosen as husband one who worships a strange god, and of all crimes that is the greatest. Therefore, either you must take incense and before us all make offering to El and Baaltis upon yonder altar, thus renouncing your faith and entering into ours, or she must die and you, your rank having passed from you with her breath, will be expelled from the city."

Now Aziel understood the trap that had been laid for him, and saw in it the handiwork of Sakon and Metem. Elissa having flagrantly violated the religious law, and he, being the cause of her crime, even the authority of the governor of the city could not prevent his daughter and his guest from being put upon their trial. Therefore, they had arranged this farce, for so it would seem to them, whereby both the offenders might escape the legal consequences of their offence, trusting, doubtless, to accident and the future to unravel this web of forced marriage, and to free Aziel from a priestly rank which he had not sought. It was only necessary that Elissa should formally choose him as her husband, and that Aziel should go through rite of throwing a few grains of incense upon an altar, and, the law satisfied, they would be both free and safe. What Metem, and those who worked with him, had forgotten was, that this offering of incense to Baal would be the most deadly of crimes in the eyes of any faithful Jew--one, indeed, which, were he alone concerned, he would die rather than commit.

When the prince heard this decree, and the full terror of the choice came home to his mind, his blood turned cold, and for a while his senses were bewildered. There was no escape for him; either he must abjure his faith at the price of his own soul, or, because of it, the woman whom he loved, now, before his eyes, must suffer a most horrible and sudden death. It was hideous to think of, and yet how could he do this sin in the face of heaven and of these ministers of Satan?

The moment was at hand; a priest held out to him a bowl of incense, a golden bowl, he noticed idly, with handles of green stone fashioned in the likeness of Baaltis, whose servant he was asked to declare himself. He, Aziel of the royal house of Israel, a servant of Baal and Baaltis, nay, a high-priest of their worship! It was monstrous, it might not be. But Elissa? Well, she must die--if this was not a farce, and in truth they meant to murder her; her life could not be bought at such a price.

"I cannot do it," he gasped with dry lips, thrusting aside the bowl.

Now all looked astonished, for his refusal had not been foreseen. There was a pause, and once more the woman Mesa, in her character of prosecutrix on behalf of the outraged gods, appeared before the altar, and said in her cold voice:

"The Jew whom the lady Baaltis has chosen as husband will not do homage to her gods. Therefore, as Mother of the priestesses and Advocate of Baaltis, I demand that Elissa, daughter of Sakon, be put to death, and the throne of Baaltis be purged of one who has defiled it, lest the swift and terrible vengeance of the goddess should fall upon this city."

The Shadid motioned to her to be silent, and addressed Aziel:--

"We pray you to think a while," he said, "before you give one to death whose only sin is that, being the high-priestess of our worship, she has named an unbeliever to fill the throne of El and be her husband. Out of pity for her fate we give you time to think."

Now Sakon, taking advantage of the pause, rushed forward, and throwing his arms about Aziel's knees, implored him in heart-breaking accents to preserve his only child from so horrible a doom. He said that did he refuse to save her because of his religious scruples, he would be a dog and a coward, and the scorn of all honest men for ever. It was for love of him that she had broken the priestly law, to violate which was death, and although he had been warned of her danger, yet in his wickedness and folly he had brought her to this pass. Would he then desert her now?

But Issachar thrust him aside, and broke in with fiery words:--

"Hearken not to this man, Aziel," he said, "who strives to work upon your weakness to the ruin of your soul. What! To save the life of one woman, whose fair face has brought so much trouble upon us all, would you deny your Lord and become the thrall of Baal and Ashtoreth? Let her die since die she must, and keep your own heart pure, for be assured, should you do otherwise, Jehovah, whom you renounce, will swiftly be avenged on you and her. At the beginning I warned you, and you would not listen. Now, Aziel, I warn you again, and woe! woe! woe! to you should you shut your ears to my message." Then lifting his hands towards the skies, he began to pray aloud that Aziel might be constant in his trial.

Meanwhile, Metem, who had drawn near, spoke in a low voice:--

"Prince," he said, "I am not chicken-hearted, and there are so many young women in the world that one more or less can scarcely matter; still, although she threatened to murder me three days ago, I cannot bear to see this one come to so dreadful a death. Prince, do not heed the howlings of that old fanatic, but remember that after all you are the cause of this lady's plight, and play the part of a man. Can you for the sake of your own scruples, however worthy, or of your own soul even, however valuable to yourself, doom the fair body of a woman who risked all for you to such an end as that?" And shuddering he nodded towards the gloomy precipice.

"Is there no other way?" Aziel asked him.

"None, I swear it. They did not wish to kill her, except that wild-cat Mesa who seeks her place, but having put her on her public trial, if you persist--they must.

"This is one of the few laws which cannot be broken for favour or for gold, since the people, who are already half-mad with fear of Ithobal, believe that to break it would bring the curses of heaven upon their city. Perhaps we might have found some other plan, but none of us even dreamed that you would refuse so small a thing for the sake of a woman whom you swore you loved."

"A small thing!" broke in Aziel.

"Yes, Prince, a very small thing. Remember, this offering of incense is but a form to which you are forced against your will--you can do penance for it afterwards when I have arranged for both of you to escape the city. If your God can be angry with you for burning a pinch of dust to save a woman, who at the least has dared much for you, then give me Baal, for he is less cruel."

Now Aziel looked towards him who held the bowl of incense. But Elissa who all this while had stood silent, stepped forward and spoke:--

"Prince Aziel," she said in a calm and quiet voice, "I named you husband to save your life, but with all my strength I pray of you, do not this thing to save mine, which is of little value and perhaps best ended. Remember, prince Aziel, that being what you are, a Jew, this act of offering, however small it seems, is yet the greatest of sins, and one with which you should not dare to stain your soul for the sake of a woman, who has chanced to love you to your sorrow. Be guided, therefore, by the true wisdom of Issachar and by my humble prayer. Make an end of your doubts and let me die, knowing that we do but part a while, since in the Gate of Death I shall wait for you, prince Aziel."

Before Aziel could answer, the Shadid, either because his patience was outworn, or because he wished to put him to a sharper trial, uttered a command. "Be it done to her as she desires."

Thereon four priests seized Elissa by the wrists and ankles. Carrying her to the edge of the precipice, they thrust her back till she hung over it, her long hair streaming downwards, and the red light of the sunset shining upon her upturned ghastly face. Then they paused, waiting for the signal to let her go. The Shadid raised his wand and said:--

"Is it your pleasure that this woman should die or live, prince Aziel? Decide swiftly, for my arm is weak, and when the wand falls opportunity for choice will have passed from you."

Now all eyes were fixed upon the wand, and the intense silence was only broken by Sakon's cry of despair. Metem wrung his hands in grief; even Issachar veiled his eyes with his robe, to shut out the sight of dread, and the priest, who bore the bowl of incense, thrust it towards Aziel imploringly.

For some seconds, three perhaps, though to him they seemed an age, the heart of Aziel was racked and torn in this terrific contest. Then he glanced at the agonized face of the doomed woman, and just as the wand began to bend, his human love and pity conquered.

"May He Whom I blaspheme forgive me," he murmured, adding aloud, "I will do sacrifice." Taking the incense in his hand now he cast it into the flames upon the altar, repeating mechanically after the Shadid: "By this sacrifice and homage, body and soul I give myself to you and worship you, El and Baaltis, the only true gods."

*****

The echo of Aziel's voice died away, and the fumes of the incense rose in a straight dense column upon that quiet air. To his tormented mind, it seemed as though its smoke took the form of an avenging angel, holding in the hand a sword of flame, wherewith to drive away his perjured soul from Heaven, as our first forefathers were driven from the shining gates of paradise. Yes, and they were not human, those spectators who, in the intense glow of the sunset, stood in their still ranks and stared at him with wide and eager eyes. Surely they were fiends red with the blood of men, fiends gathered from the Pit to bear everlasting witness to the unpardonable sin of his apostasy.