Chapter XIV. The Martyrdom of Issachar
 

It was done, and from the mouths of the circle of priests and priestesses leapt a shrill and sudden cry of triumph. For had not their gods conquered? Had not this high-placed servant of the hated Lord of Israel been caught by the bait of a priestess of Baaltis, and seduced by her distress to deny and reject Him? Was not evil once more triumphant, and must not they, its ministers, rejoice?

Again the Shadid raised his wand and they were silent.

"Brother you have, indeed, done well and wisely," he said, addressing Aziel. "Now take to wife the divine lady who has chosen you," and he pointed to Elissa, who lay prostrated on the rock. "Yes, take her and be happy in her love, sitting in my seat, which henceforth is yours, as ruler of the priests of El and master of their mysteries, forgetting the follies of your former faith, and spitting on its altars. Hail to you, Shadid, Lord of the Baaltis and chosen of El! Take him, you priests, and with him the divine lady, his wife, to bear them in triumph to their high house."

"What of the Levite?" asked the woman Mesa.

The Shadid glanced at Issachar, who all this while had stood like one stricken to the soul, woe stamped upon his face, and a stare of horror in his eyes. "Jew," he said, "I had forgotten you, but you also are on your trial, who dared against the law to hold secret meeting with the lady Baaltis. For this sin the punishment is death, nor, as I think, would any woman name you husband to save you. Still in this hour of joy we will be merciful; therefore do as your master did, cast incense on the altar, uttering the appointed words, and go your way."

"Before I make my offering on yonder altar according to your command, I have indeed some words to say, O priest of El," answered Issachar quietly, but in a voice that chilled the blood of those who listened.

"First, I address myself to you, Aziel, and to you, woman," and he pointed to Elissa, who had risen, and leaned, trembling, upon her father. "My dream is fulfilled. Aziel, you have sinned indeed, and must bear the appointed punishment of your sin. Yet hear a message of mercy spoken through my lips: Because you have sinned through love and pity, your offence is not unto death. Still shall you sorrow for it all your life's days, and in desolation of heart and bitterness of soul shall creep back to the feet of Him you have forsworn.

"Woman, your spirit is noble and your feet are set in the way of righteousness, yet through you has this offence come. Therefore your love shall bear no fruit, nor shall the blasphemy of your beloved save your flesh from doom. Upon this earth there is no hope for you, daughter of Sakon; set your eyes beyond it, for there alone is hope.

"Yonder she stands who swore our lives away?" and he fixed his burning gaze on Mesa. "Priestess, you plotted this that you might succeed to the throne of Baaltis; now hear your fate: You shall live to sweep the huts and bear the babes of savages. You, priest," and he pointed to the Shadid, "I read your heart; you design to murder this apostate whom you greet as your successor that you may usurp his place. I show you yours: it lies in the bellies of the jackals of the desert.

"For you priests and priestesses of El and Baaltis, think of my words, and raise the loud song of triumph to your gods when you yourselves are their offering, and the red flame of the fire burns you up, all of you save your sins, which are immortal. O citizens of an accursed city, look on the hill-top yonder and tell me, what do you see in the light of the dying day? A sheen of spears, is it not? They draw near to your hearts, you whose day is done indeed, citizens of an accursed city whereof the very name shall be forgotten, and the naked towers shall become but a source of wonder to men unborn.

"And now, O priest, having said my say, as you bid me, I make my offering upon your altar."

Then, while all stood fearful and amazed, Issachar the Levite sprang forward, and seizing the ancient image of Baaltis, he spat upon it and dashed the priceless consecrated thing down upon the altar, where it broke into fragments, and was burned with the fire.

"My offering is made," he said; "may He whom I serve accept it. Now after the offering comes the sacrifice; son Aziel, fare you well."

*****

For a few moments a silence of horror and dismay fell upon the assembly as they gazed at the shattered and burning fragments of their holy image. Then moved by a common impulse, with curses and yells of fury, the priests and priestesses sprang from their seats and hurled themselves upon Issachar, who stood awaiting them with folded arms. They smote him with their ivory rods, they rent and tore him with their hands and teeth, worrying him as dogs worry a fox of the hills, till at length the life was beaten and trampled out of him and he lay dead.

Thus terribly, but yet by such a death of martyrdom as he would have chosen, perished Issachar the Levite.

Unarmed though he was, Aziel had sprung to his aid, but Metem and Sakon, knowing that he would but bring about his own destruction, flung themselves upon him and held him back. Whilst he was still struggling with them the end came, and Issachar grew still for ever. Then, as the sun sank and the darkness fell, Aziel's strength left him, and presently he slipped to the ground senseless.

*****

Thereafter it seemed to Aziel that he was plunged in an endless and dreadful dream, and that through its turmoil and shifting visions, he could see continually the dreadful death of Issachar, and hear his stern accents prophesying woe to him who renounces the God of his forefathers to bow the knee to Baal.

At length he awoke from that horror-haunted sleep to find himself lying in a strange chamber. It was night, and lamps burned in the chamber, and by their light he saw a man whose face he knew mixing a draught in a glass phial. So weak was he that at first he could not remember the man's name, then by slow degrees it came to him.

"Metem," he said, "where am I?"

The Phoenician looked up from his task, smiled, and answered:--

"Where you should be, Prince, in your own house, the palace of the Shadid. But you must not speak, for you have been ill; drink this and sleep."

Aziel swallowed the draught and was instantly overcome by slumber. When he awoke the sun was shining brightly through the window place, and its rays fell upon the shrewd, kindly face of Metem, who, seated on a stool, watched him, his chin resting in his hand.

"Tell me all that has befallen, friend," said Aziel presently, "since----" and he shuddered.

"Since you were married after a new fashion and that bigoted but most honourable fool, Issachar, went to his reward. Well, I will when you have eaten," answered Metem as he gave him food. "First," he said, after a while, "you have lain here for three days raving in a fever, nursed by myself and visited by your wife the lady Baaltis, whenever she could escape from her religious duties----"

"Elissa! Has she been here?" asked Aziel.

"Calm yourself, Prince, certainly she has, and, what is more, she will be back soon. Secondly: Ithobal has been as good as his word, and invests the city with a vast army, cutting off all supplies and possibilities of escape. It is believed that he will try an assault within the next week, which many think may be successful. Thirdly: to avoid this risk it is rumoured that the priests and priestesses, at the instance of the council, are discussing the wisdom of giving over to the king the person of the daughter of Sakon. This, it is said, could be done on the plea that her election as the lady Baaltis was brought about with bribery, and is, therefore, void, as she was not chosen by the pure and unassisted will of the goddess."

"But," said Aziel, "she is my wife according to their religious law; how then can she be given in marriage to another?"

"Nay, Prince, if she is not the lady Baaltis your husbandship falls to the ground with the rest, for you are not the Shadid, an office with which perchance you can dispense. But all this priestly juggling means little, the truth being that the city in its terror is ready to throw her--or for the matter of that, Baaltis herself if they could lay hands on her--as a sop to Ithobal, hoping thereby to appease his rage. The lady Elissa knows her danger--but here she comes to speak for herself."

As he spoke the curtains at the end of the chamber were drawn, and through them came Elissa, clad in her splendid robes of office and wearing upon her brow the golden crescent of the moon.

"How goes it with the prince, Metem?" she asked in her soft voice, glancing anxiously towards the couch which was half-hidden in the shadow of the wall.

"Look for yourself, lady," answered the Phoenician bowing before her.

"Elissa, Elissa!" cried Aziel, raising himself and opening his arms.

She saw and heard, then, with a low cry, she ran swiftly to him and was wrapped in his embrace. Thus they stayed a while, murmuring words of love and greeting.

"Is it your pleasure that I should leave you?" asked Metem presently. "No? Then, Prince, I would have you remember that you are still very weak and should not give way to violent emotions."

"Listen, Aziel," said Elissa, untwining his arms from about her neck, "there is no time for tenderness; moreover, you should show none to one who, in name at least, is still the high-priestess of Baaltis, though in truth she worships her no longer. It was noble of you indeed to offer incense upon the altar of El that my life might be saved. But when I prayed you not, I spoke from the heart, and bitterly, bitterly do I grieve that for my sake you should have stained your hands with such a sin. Moreover, it will avail nothing, for the doom of the prophet Issachar lies upon us, and I cannot escape from death, neither can you escape remorse, and as I think, that worst of all desires--the desire for the dead."

"Can we not still flee the city?" asked Aziel.

"Metem will tell you that it is impossible; day and night I am watched and guarded, yes, Mesa dogs me from door to door. Also Ithobal holds Zimboe so firmly in his net that no sparrow could fly out of it and he not know. And there is worse to tell: Beloved, they purpose to give me up as a peace-offering to Ithobal. Yes, even my father is of the plot, for in his despair he thinks it his duty to sacrifice his daughter to save the town, if, indeed, that will suffice to save us."

"But you are the Baaltis and inviolate."

"In such a time the goddess herself would not be held inviolate in Zimboe, much less her priestess, Aziel. I have discovered that this very night they have laid their plans to seize me. Mesa and others have been chosen for the deed, and afterwards they think to offer me as a bribe to Ithobal, who will take no other price."

Aziel groaned aloud: "It were better that we should die," he said.

She nodded and answered: "It were better that I should die. But hear me, for I also have a plan, and there is still hope, though very little. Perhaps, as you drew near to Zimboe by the coast road, you may have noted three miles or more from the gates of the city, and almost overhanging the path on which you travelled, a shoulder of the mountain where the rock is cut away, showing the narrow entrance to a cave closed with a gate of bronze?"

"I saw it," answered Aziel, "and was told that there was the most sacred burying-place of the city."

"It is the tomb of the high-priestesses of Baaltis," went on Elissa, "and this day at sunset I must visit it to lay an offering upon the shrine of her who was the Baaltis before me, entering alone, and closing the gate, for it is not lawful that any one should pass in there with me. Now, the plan is to lay hands on me as I go back from the tomb to the palace--but I shall not go back. Aziel, I shall stay in the tomb--nay, do not fear--not dead. I have hidden food and water there, enough for many days, and there with the departed I shall live --till I am of their number."

"But if so, how can it help you, Elissa, for they will break in the gates of the place, and drag you away?"

"Then, Aziel, they will drag away a corpse, and that they will scarcely care to present to Ithobal. See, I have hidden poison in my breast, and here at my girdle hangs a dagger; are not the two of them enough to make an end of one frail life? Should they dare to touch me, I shall tell them through the bars that most certainly I shall drink the bane, or use the knife; and when they know it, they will leave me unharmed, hoping to starve me out, or trusting to chance to snare me living."

"You are bold," murmured Aziel in admiration, "but self-murder is a sin."

"It is a sin that I will dare, beloved, as in past days I would have dared it for less cause, rather than be given alive into the hands of Ithobal; for to whoever else I may be false, to you through life and death I will be true."

Now Aziel groaned in his doubt and bitterness of heart; then turning to Metem, he asked:--

"Have you anything to say, Metem?"

"Yes, Prince, two things," answered the Phoenician. "First, that the lady Elissa is rash, indeed, to speak so openly before me who might carry her words to the council or the priests."

"Nay, Metem, I am not rash, for I know that, although you love money, you will not betray me."

"You are right, lady, I shall not, for money would be of little service to me in a city that is about to be taken by storm. Also I hate Ithobal, who threatened my life--as you did also, by the way--and will do my best to keep you from his clutches. Now for my second point: it is that I can see little use in all this because Ithobal, being defrauded of you, will attack, and then----"

"And then he may be beaten, Metem, for the citizens will at any rate fight for their lives, and the Prince Aziel here, who is a general skilled in war, will fight also if he has recovered strength----"

"Do not fear, Elissa; give me two days, and I will fight to the death," said Aziel.

"At the least," she went on, "this scheme gives us breathing time, and who knows but that fortune will turn. Or if it does not, since it is impossible for me to escape from the city, I have no better."

"No more have I," said Metem, "for at length the oldest fox comes to his last double. I could escape from this city, or the prince might escape, or the lady Elissa even might possibly escape disguised, but I am sure that all three of us could not escape, seeing that within the walls we are watched and without them the armies of Ithobal await us. Oh! prince Aziel, I should have done well to go, as I might have gone when you and Issachar were taken after that mad meeting in the temple, from which I never looked for anything but ill; but I grow foolish in my old age, and thought that I should like to see the last of you. Well, so far we are all alive, except Issachar, who, although bigoted, was still the most worthy of us, but how long we shall remain alive I cannot say.

"Now our best chance is to defeat Ithobal if we can, and afterwards in the confusion to fly from Zimboe and join our servants, to whom I have sent word to await us in a secret place beyond the first range of hills. If we cannot--why then we must go a little sooner than we expected to find out who it is that really shapes the destinies of men, and whether or no the sun and moon are the chariots of El and Baaltis. But, Prince, you turn pale."

"It is nothing," said Aziel, "bring me some water, the fever still burns in me."

Metem went to seek for water, while Elissa knelt by the couch and pressed her lover's hand.

"I dare stay no longer," she whispered, "and Aziel, I know not how or when we shall meet again, but my heart is heavy, for, alas! I think that doom draws near me. I have brought much sorrow upon you, Aziel, and yet more upon myself, and I have given you nothing, except that most common of all things, a woman's love."

"That most perfect of all things," he answered, "which I am glad to have lived to win."

"Yes, but not at the price that you have paid for it. I know well what it must have cost you to cast that incense on the flame, and I pray to your God, who has become my God, to visit the sin of it on my head and to leave yours unharmed. Aziel, Aziel! woman or spirit, while I have life and memory, I am yours, and yours only; clean-handed I leave you, and if we may meet again in this or in any other world, clean and faithful I shall come to you again. Glad am I to have lived, because in my life I have known you and you have sworn you love me. Glad shall I be to live again if again I may know you and hear that oath--if not, it is sleep I seek; for life without you to me would be a hell. You grow weak, and I must go. Farewell, and living or dead, forget me not; swear that you will not forget me."

"I swear it," he answered faintly; "and Heaven grant that I may die for you, not you for me."

"That is no prayer of mine," she whispered; and, bending, kissed him on the brow, for he was too weak to lift his lips to hers.

Then she was gone.