Chapter XV. Elissa Takes Sanctuary
 

Two more hours had passed, and in the evening light a procession of priestesses might be seen advancing slowly towards the holy tomb along a narrow road of rock cut in the mountain face. In front of this procession, wearing a black veil over her broidered robes, walked Elissa with downcast eyes and hair unbound in token of grief, while behind her came Mesa and other priestesses bearing in bowls of alabaster the offerings to the dead, food and wine, and lamps of oil, and vases filled with perfumes. Behind these again marched the mourners, women who sang a funeral dirge and from time to time broke into a wail of simulated grief. Nor, indeed, was their woe as hollow as might be thought, since from that mountain path they could see the outposts of the army of Ithobal upon the plain, and note with a shudder of fear the spear-heads of his countless thousands shining in the gorges of the opposing heights. It was not for the dead Baaltis that they mourned this day, but for the fate which overshadowed them and their city of gold.

"May the curse of all the gods fall on her," muttered one of the priestesses as she toiled forward beneath her load of offerings; "because she is beautiful and pettish, we must be put to the spear, or become the wives of savages," and she pointed with her chin to Elissa, who walked in front, lost in her own thoughts.

"Have patience," answered Mesa at her side, "you know the plan-- to-night that proud girl and false priestess shall sleep in the camp of Ithobal."

"Will he be satisfied with that," asked the woman, "and leave the city in peace?"

"They say so," answered Mesa with a laugh, "though it is strange that a king should exchange spoil and glory for one round-eyed, thin-limbed girl who loves his rival. Well, let us thank the gods that made men foolish, and gave us women wit to profit by their folly. If he wants her, let him take her, for few will be poorer by her loss."

"You at least will be richer," said the other woman, "and by the crown of Baaltis. Well, I do not grudge it you, and as for the daughter of Sakon, she shall be Ithobal's if I take her to him limb by limb."

"Nay, sister, that is not the bargain; remember she must be delivered to him without hurt or blemish; otherwise we shall do sacrilege in vain. Be silent, here is the cave."

Reaching the platform in front of the tomb, the procession of mourners ranged themselves about it in a semi-circle. They stood with their backs to the edge of a cliff that rose sheer for sixty feet or more from the plain beneath, across which, but at a little distance from the foot of the precipice ran the road followed by the caravans of merchants in their journeys to and from the coast. Then, a hymn having been sung invoking the blessing of the gods on the dead priestess, Elissa, as the Baaltis, unlocked the gates of bronze with a golden key that hung at her girdle, and the bearers of the bowls of offerings pushed them into the mouth of the tomb, whose threshold they were not allowed to pass. Next, with bowed heads and hands crossed upon her breast, Elissa entered the tomb, and locking the bronze gate behind her, took up two of the bowls and vanished with them into its gloomy depths.

"Why did she lock the gates?" asked a priestess of Mesa. "It is not customary."

"Doubtless because it was her pleasure to do so," answered Mesa sharply, though she also wondered why Elissa had locked the gate.

When an hour was gone by and Elissa had not returned, her wonder turned to fear and doubt.

"Call to the lady Baaltis," she said, "for her prayers are long, and I fear lest she should have come to harm."

So they called, setting heir lips against the bars of the gate till presently, Elissa, holding a lamp in her hand, came and stood before them.

"Why do you disturb me in the sanctuary?" she asked.

"Lady, because they set the night watch on the walls," answered Mesa, "and it is time to return to the temple."

"Return then," said Elissa, "and leave me in peace. What, you cannot, Mesa? Nay, and shall I tell you why? Because you had plotted to deliver me this night to those who should lead me as a peace-offering to Ithobal, and when you come to them empty-handed they will greet you with harsh words. Nay, do not trouble to deny it, Mesa. I also have my spies, and know all the plan; and, therefore, I have taken sanctuary in this holy place."

Now Mesa pressed her thin lips together and answered:--

"Those who dare to lay hands upon the person of the living Baaltis will not shrink from seeking her in the company of her dead sisters."

"I know it, Mesa; but the gates are barred, and here I have food and drink in plenty."

"Gates, however strong, can be broken," answered the priestess, "so, lady, do not wait till you are dragged hence like some discovered slave."

"Ay," replied Elissa, with a little laugh, "but what if rather than be thus dishonoured, I should choose to break another gate, that of my own life? Look, traitress, here is poison and here is bronze, and I swear to you that should any lay a hand upon me, by one or other of them I will die before their eyes. Then, if you will, bear these bones to Ithobal and take his thanks for them. Now, begone, and give this message to my father and to all those who have plotted with him, that since they cannot bribe Ithobal with my beauty, they will do well to be men, and to fight him with their swords."

Then she turned and left them, vanishing into the darkness of the tomb.

Great indeed was the dismay of the councillors of Zimboe and of the priests who had plotted with them when, an hour later, Mesa came, not to deliver Elissa into their hands, but to repeat to them her threats and message. In vain did they appeal to Sakon, who only shook his head and answered:--

"Of this I am sure, that what my daughter has threatened that she will certainly do if you force her to the choice. But if you will not believe me, go ask her and satisfy yourselves. I know well what she will answer you, and I hold that this is a judgment upon us, who first made her Baaltis against her will, then threatened her with death because of the prince Aziel, and now would do sacrilege to her sacred office and violence to herself by tearing her from her consecrated throne, breaking her bond of marriage and delivering her to Ithobal."

So the leaders of the councillors visited the holy tomb and reasoned with Elissa through the bars. But they got no comfort from her, for she spoke to them with the phial of poison in her bosom and the naked dagger in her hand, telling them what she had told Mesa--that they had best give up their plottings and fight Ithobal like men, seeing that even if she surrendered herself to him, when he grew weary of her the war must come at last.

"For a hundred years," she added, "this storm has gathered, and now it must burst. When it has rolled away it will be known who is master of the land--the ancient city of Zimboe, or Ithobal king of the Tribes."

So they went back as they had come, and next day at the dawn, with a bold face but heavy hearts, received the messengers of king Ithobal, and told them their tale. The messengers heard and laughed.

"We are glad," they answered, "since we, who are not in love with the daughter of Sakon, desire war and not peace, holding as we do that the time has come when you upstart white men--you outlanders--who have usurped our country to suck away its wealth should be set beneath our heel. Nor do we think that the task will be difficult for surely we have little to fear from a city of low money seekers whose councillors cannot even conquer the will of a single maid."

Then in their despair the elders offered other girls to Ithobal in marriage, as many as he would, and with them a great bribe in money. But the envoys took their leave, saying that nothing would avail since they preferred spear-thrusts to gold, for which they had little use, and Ithobal, their king, had fixed his fancy on one woman alone.

So with a heavy and foreboding heart, the city of Zimboe prepared itself to resist attack, for as they had guessed, when he learned all, the rage of Ithobal was great. Nor would he listen to any terms that they could offer save one which they had no power to grant--that Elissa should be delivered unharmed into his hands. Councils of war were held, and to these, so soon as he was sufficiently recovered from his sickness, the prince Aziel was bidden, for he was known to be a skilled captain; therefore, though he had been the cause of much of their trouble, they sought his aid. Also, should the struggle be prolonged, they hoped through him to win Israel, and perhaps Egypt, to their cause.

Aziel's counsel was that they should sally out against the army of Ithobal by night, since he expected to attack and not to be attacked, but to that advice they would not listen, for they trusted to their walls. Indeed, in this Metem supported them, and when the prince argued with him, he answered:--

"Your tactics would be good enough, Prince, if you had at your back the lions of Judah, or the wild Arab horsemen of the desert. But here you must deal with men of my own breed, and we Phoenicians are traders, not fighting men. Like rats, we fight only when there is no other chance for our lives; nor do we strike the first blow. It is true that there are some good soldiers in the city, but they are foreign mercenaries; and as for the rest, half-breeds and freed slaves, they belong as much to Ithobal as to Sakon, and are not to be trusted. No, no; let us stay behind our walls, for they at least were built when men were honest and will not betray us."

Now in Zimboe were three lines of defence; first, that of a single wall built about the huts of the slaves upon the plain, then that of a double wall of stone with a ditch between thrown round the Phoenician city, and lastly, the great fortress-temple and the rocky heights above. These, guarded as they were by many strongholds within whose circle the cattle were herded, as it was thought, could only be taken with the sword of hunger.

At last the storm burst, for on the fifth morning after Elissa had barred herself within the tomb, Ithobal attacked the native town. Uttering their wild battle-cries, tens of thousands of his savage warriors, armed with great spears and shields of ox-hide, and wearing crests of plumes upon their heads, charged down upon the outer wall. Twice they were driven back, but the work was in bad repair and too long to defend, so that at the third rush they flowed over it like lines of marching ants, driving its defenders before them to the inner gates. In this battle some were killed, but the most of the slaves threw down their arms and went over to Ithobal, who spared them, together with their wives and children.

Through all the night that followed, the generals of Zimboe made ready for the onslaught which must come. Everywhere within the circuit of the inner wall troops were stationed, while the double southern gateway, where prince Aziel was the captain in command, was built up with loose blocks of stone.

A while before the dawn, just as the eastern sky grew grey, Aziel, watching from his post above the gate of the wall, heard the fierce war-song of the Tribes swell suddenly from fifty thousand throats and the measured tramp of their innumerable feet. Then the day broke, and he saw them advancing in three armies towards the three points chosen for attack, the largest of the armies, headed by Ithobal the king, directing its march upon the walled gate of which he was in command.

It was a wondrous and a fearful sight, that of these hordes of plumed warriors, their broad spears flashing in the sunrise, and their fierce faces alight with hereditary hate and the lust of slaughter. Never had Aziel seen such a spectacle, nor could he look upon it without dreading the issue of the war, for if they were savages, these foes were brave as the lions of their own plains, and had sworn by the head of their king to drag down the sheltering walls of Zimboe with their naked hands, or die to the last man.

Turning his head with a sigh of doubt, Aziel found Metem standing at his side.

"Have you seen her?" he asked eagerly.

"No, Prince. How could I see her at night when she sits in a tomb like a fox in his burrow? But I have heard her."

"What did she say? Quick man, tell me."

"But little, Prince, for the tomb is watched and I dared not stay there long. She sent you her greetings and would have you know that her heart will be with you in the battle, and her prayers beseech the throne of Heaven for your safety. Also she said that she is well, though it is lonesome there in the grave among the bodies of the dead priestesses of Baaltis whose spirits, as she vows, haunt her dreams, reviling her because she desecrates their sepulchre and has renounced their god."

"Lonesome, indeed," said Aziel with a shudder; "but tell me, Metem, had she no other word?"

"Yes, Prince, but not of good omen, for now as always she is sure that her doom is at hand, and that you two will meet no more. Still she bade me tell you that all your life long her spirit shall companion you though it be unseen, to receive you at the last on the threshold of the underworld."

Aziel turned his head away, and said presently:--

"If that be so, may it receive me soon."

"Have no fear, Prince," replied Metem with a grim laugh, "look yonder," and he pointed to the advancing hosts.

"These walls are strong and we shall beat them back," said Aziel.

"Nay, Prince, for strong walls do not avail without strong hearts to guard them, and those of the womanish citizens of Zimboe and their hired soldiers are white with fear. I tell you that the prophecies of Issachar the Levite, made yonder in the temple on the day of the sacrifice, and again in the hour of his death, have taken hold of the people, and by eating out their valour, fulfil themselves.

"Men hint at them, the women whisper them in closets, and the very children cry them in the streets.

"More--one man last night pointed to the skies and shrieked that in them he saw that fiery sword of doom of which the prophet spoke hanging point downwards above the city, whereon all present vowed they saw it too, though, as I think, it was but a cross of stars. Another tells how that he met the very spirit of Issachar stalking through the market-place, and that peering into the eyes of the wraith, as in a mirror, he saw a great flame wrapping the temple walls, and by the light of it his own dead body. This man was the priest who first struck down the holy Levite yonder in the place of judgment.

"Again, when the lady Mesa did sacrifice last night on behalf of the Baaltis who has fled, the child they offered, an infant of six months, stirred on the altar after it was dead and cried with a loud voice that before three suns had set, its blood should be required at their hands. That is the story, and if I do not believe it, this at least is true, that the priestesses fled fast from the secret chamber of death, for I met them as they ran shrieking in their terror and tearing at their robes. But what need is there to dwell on omens, true or false, when cowards man the walls, and the spears of Ithobal shine yonder like all the stars of heaven? Prince, I tell you that this ancient city is doomed, and in it, as I fear, we must end our wanderings upon earth."

"So be it, if it must be," answered Aziel, "at the least I will die fighting."

"And I also will die fighting, Prince, not because I love it, but because it is better than being butchered in cold blood by a savage with a spear. Oh! why did you ever chance to stumble upon the lady Elissa making her prayer to Baaltis, and what evil spirit was it which filled your brains with this sudden madness of love towards each other? That was the beginning of the trouble, which, but for those eyes of hers, would have held off long enough to see us safe at Tyre, though doubtless soon or late it must have come. But see, yonder marches Ithobal at the head of his guard. Give me a bow, the flight is long, but perchance I can reach his black heart with an arrow."

"Save your strength," answered Aziel, "the range is too great, and presently you will have enough of shooting," and he turned to talk to the officers of the guard.