Chapter III. Ithobal the King
 

Two hours had gone by, and the prince Aziel, together with his retinue, the officers of the caravan, and many other guests, were seated at a great feast made in their honour, by Sakon, the governor of the city. This feast was held in the large pillared hall of Sakon's house, built beneath the northern wall of the temple fortress, and not more than a few paces from its narrow entrance, through which in case of alarm the inhabitants of the palace could fly for safety. All down this chamber were placed tables, accommodating more than two hundred feasters, but the principal guests were seated by themselves upon a raised das at the head of the hall. Among them sat Sakon himself, a middle-aged man stout in build, and thoughtful of face, his daughter Elissa, some other noble ladies, and a score or more of the notables of the city and its surrounding territories.

One of these strangers immediately attracted the attention of Aziel, who was seated in the place of honour at the right of Sakon, between him and the lady Elissa. This man was of large stature, and about forty years of age; the magnificence of his apparel and the great gold chain set with rough diamonds which hung about his neck showing him to be a person of importance. His tawny complexion marked him of mixed race. This conclusion his features did not belie, for the brow, nose, and cheek-bones were Semitic in outline, while the full, prominent eyes, and thick, sensuous lips could with equal certainty be attributed to the Negroid stock. In fact, he was the son of a native African queen, or chieftainess, and a noble Phoenician, and his rank no less than that of absolute king and hereditary chief of a vast and undefined territory which lay around the trading cities of the white men, whereof Zimboe was the head and largest. Aziel noticed that this king, who was named Ithobal, seemed angry and ill at ease, whether because he was not satisfied with the place which had been allotted to him at the table, or for other reasons, he could not at the time determine.

When the meats had been removed, and the goblets were filled with wine, men began to talk, till presently Sakon called for silence, and rising, addressed Aziel:--

"Prince," he said, "in the name of this great and free city--for free it is, though we acknowledge the king of Tyre as our suzerain--I give you welcome within our gates. Here, far in the heart of Libya, we have heard of the glorious and wise king, your grandfather, and of the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt, whose blood runs also within your veins. Prince, we are honoured in your coming, and for the asking, whatever this land of gold can boast is yours. Long may you live; may the favour of those gods you worship attend you, and in the pursuit of wisdom, of wealth, of war, and of love, may the good grain of all be garnered in your bosom, and the wind of prosperity winnow out the chaff of them to fall beneath your feet. Prince, I have greeted you as it behoves me to greet the blood of Solomon and Pharaoh; now I add a word. Now I greet you as a father greets the man who has saved his only and beloved daughter from death, or shameful bondage. Know you, friends, what this stranger did since to-night's moonrise? My daughter was at worship alone yonder without the walls, and a great savage set on her, purposing to bear her away captive. Ay, and he would have done it had not the prince Aziel here given him battle, and, after a fierce fight, slain him."

"No great deed to kill a single savage," broke in the king Ithobal, who had been listening with impatience to Sakon's praises of this high-born stranger.

"No great deed you say, King," answered Sakon. "Guards, being in the body of the man and set it before us."

There was a pause, till presently six men staggered up the hall bearing between them the corpse of the barbarian, which, still covered with the leopard skin mantle, they threw down on the edge of the das.

"See!" said one of the bearers, withdrawing the cloak from the huge body. Then pointing to the sword which still transfixed it, he added, "and learn what strength heaven gives to the arms of princes."

Such as the guests as were near enough rose to look at the grizzly sight, then turned to offer their congratulations to the conqueror. but there was one of them--the king Ithobal--who offered none; indeed, as his eyes fell upon the face of the corpse, they grew alight with rage.

"What ails you, King? Are you jealous of such a blow?" asked Sakon, watching him curiously.

"Speak no more of that thrust, I pray you," said Aziel, "for it was due to the weight of the man rushing on the sword, which after he was dead I could not find the power to loosen from his breast-bone."

"Then I will do you that service, Prince," sneered Ithobal, and, setting his foot upon the breast of the corpse, with a sudden effort of his great frame, he plucked out the sword and cast it down upon the table.

"Now, one might think," said Aziel, flushing with anger, "that you, King, who do a courtesy to a man of smaller strength, mean a challenge. Doubtless, however, I am mistaken, who do not understand the manners of this country."

"Think what you will, Prince," answered the chieftain, "but learn that he who lies dead before us by your hand--as you say--was no slave to be killed at pleasure, but a man of rank, none other, indeed, than the son of my mother's sister."

"Is it so?" replied Aziel, "then surely, King, you are well rid of a cousin, however highly born, who made it his business to ravish maidens from their homes."

By way of answer to these words Ithobal sprang from his seat again, laying hand upon his sword. But before he could speak or draw it, the governor Sakon addressed him in a cold and meaning voice:--

"Of your courtesy, King," he said, "remember that the prince here is my guest, as you are, and give us peace. If that dead man was your cousin, at least he well deserved to die, not at the hand of one of royal blood, but by that of the executioner, for he was the worst of thieves--a thief of women. Now tell me, King, I pray you, how came your cousin here, so far from home, since he was not numbered in your retinue?"

"I do not know, Sakon," answered Ithobal, "and if I knew I would not say. You tell me that my dead kinsman was a thief of women, which, in Phoenician eyes, must be a crime indeed. So be it; but thief or no thief, I say that there is a blood feud between me and the man who slew him, and were he great Solomon himself, instead of one of fifty princelets of his line, he should pay bitterly for the dead. To-morrow, Sakon, I will meet you before I leave for my own land, for I have words to speak to you. Till then, farewell!"--and rising, he strode down the hall, followed by his officers and guard.

*****

The sudden departure of king Ithobal in anger was the signal for the breaking up of the feast.

"Why is that half-bred chief so wrath with me?" asked Aziel in a low voice of Elissa as they followed Sakon to another chamber.

"Because--if you would know the truth--he set his dead cousin to kidnap me, and you thwarted him," she answered, looking straight before her.

Aziel made no reply, for at that moment Sakon turned to speak with him, and his face was anxious.

"I crave your pardon, Prince," he said, drawing him aside, "that you should have met with such insults at my board. Had it been any other man who spoke thus to you, by now he had rued his words, but this Ithobal is the terror of our city, for if he chooses he can bring a hundred thousand savages upon us, shutting us within our walls to starve, and cutting us off from the working of the mines whence we win gold. Therefore, in this way or that, he must be humoured, as indeed we have humoured him and his father for years, though now," he added, his brow darkening, "he demands a price that I am loth to pay," and he glanced towards his daughter, who stood watching them at a little distance, looking most beautiful in her white robes and ornaments of gold.

"Can you not make war upon him, and break his power?" asked Aziel, with a strange anxiety, guessing that this price demanded by Ithobal was none other than Elissa, the woman whom he had rescued, and whose wisdom and beauty had stirred his heart.

"It might be done, Prince, but the risk would be great, and we are here to work the mines and grow rich in trade--not to make war. The policy of Zimboe has always been a policy of peace."

"I have a better and cheaper plan," said a calm voice at his elbow-- that of Metem. "It is this: Slip a bow-string over the brute's head as he lies snoring, and pull it tight. An eagle in a cage is easy to deal with, but once on the wing the matter is different."

"There is wisdom in your counsel," said Sakon, in a hesitating voice.

"Wisdom!" broke in Aziel; "ay, the wisdom of the assassin. What, noble Sakon, would you murder a sleeping guest?"

"No, Prince, I would not," he answered hastily; "also, such a deed would bring the Tribes upon us."

"Then, Sakon, you are more foolish than you used to be," said Metem laughing. "A man who will not despatch a foe, whenever he can catch him, by means fair or foul, is not the man to govern a rich city set in the heart of a barbarous land, and so I shall tell Hiram, our king, if ever I live to see Tyre again. As for you, most high Prince, forgive the humblest of your servants if he tells you that the tenderness of your heart and the nobility of your sentiments will, I think, bring you to an early and evil end;" and, glancing towards Elissa as though to put a point upon his words, Metem smiled sarcastically and withdrew.

At this moment a messenger, whose long white hair, wild eyes and red robe announced him to be a priest of El, by which name the people of Zimboe worshipped Baal, entered the room, and whispered something into the ear of Sakon which seemed to disturb him much.

"Pardon me, Prince, and you, my guests, if I leave you," said the governor, "but I have evil tidings that call me to the temple. The lady Baaltis is seized with the black fever, and I must visit her. For an hour, farewell."

This news caused consternation among the company, and in the general confusion that followed its announcement Aziel joined Elissa, who had passed on to the balcony of the house, and was seated there alone, looking out over the moonlit city and the plains beyond. At his approach she rose in token of respect, then sat herself down again, motioning him to do likewise.

"Give me of your wisdom, lady," he said. "I thought that Baaltis was the goddess whom I heard you worshipping yonder in the grove; how, then, can she be stricken with a fever?"

"She is the goddess," Elissa answered smiling; "but the lady Baaltis is a woman whom we revere as the incarnation of that goddess upon earth, and being but a woman in her hour she must die."

"Then, what becomes of the incarnation of the goddess?"

"Another is chosen by the college of the priests of El, and the company of the priestesses of Baaltis. If that lady Baaltis who is dead chances to leave a daughter, it is usual for the lot to fall upon her; if not, upon such one of the noble maidens as may be chosen."

"Does the lady Baaltis marry, then?"

"Yes, Prince, within a year of her consecration, she must choose herself a husband, and he may be whom she will, provided only that he is of white blood, and does public sacrifice to El and Baaltis. Then after she has named him, this husband takes the title of Shadid, and for so long as his wife shall live he is the high priest of the god El, and clothed with the majesty of the god, as his wife is clothed with the majesty of Baaltis. But should she die, another wins his place."

"It is a strange faith," said Aziel, "which teaches that the Lord of Heaven can find a home in mortal breasts. But, lady, it is yours, so of it I say no more. Now tell me, if you will, what did you mean when you said that this barbarian king, Ithobal, set the savage whom I slew to kidnap you? Do you know this, or do you suspect it only?"

"I suspected it from the first, Prince, and for good reasons; moreover, I read it in the king's face as he looked upon the corpse, and when he perceived me among the feasters."

"And why should he wish to carry you away this brutally, lady, when he is at peace with the great city?"

"Perchance, Prince, after what passed to-night you can guess," she answered lowering her eyes.

"Yes, lady, I can guess, and though it is shameful that such an one should dare to think of you, still, since he is a man, I cannot blame him overmuch. But why should he press his suit in this rough and secret fashion instead of openly as a king might do?"

"He may have pressed it openly and been repulsed," she replied in a low voice. "But if he could have carried me to some far fortress, how should I flout him there, that is, if I still lived? There, with no price to pay in gold or lands or power, he would have been my master, and I should have been his slave till such time as he wearied of me. That is the fate from which you have saved me, Prince, or rather from death, for I am not one who could bear such shame at the hands of a man I hate."

"Lady," he said bowing, "I think that perhaps for the first time in my life I am glad to-night that I was born."

"And I," she answered, "who am but a Phoenician maiden, am glad that I should have lived to hear one who is as royal in thought and soul as he is in rank speak thus to me. Oh! Prince," she added, clasping her hands, "if your words are not those of empty courtesy alone, hear me, for you are great, a Lord of the Earth whom none refuse, and it may be in your power to give me aid. Prince, I am in a sore strait, for that danger from which I prayed to be delivered this night presses me hard. Prince, it is true that Ithobal has been refused my hand, both by myself and by my father, and therefore it was that he strove to steal me away. But the evil is not done with, for the great nobles of the city and the chief priests of El came to my father at sunset and prayed him that he would let Ithobal take me, seeing that otherwise in his rage he will make war upon Zimboe. When a man placed as is my father must choose between the safety of thousands and the honour and happiness of one poor girl, what will his answer be, think you?"

"Now," said Aziel, "save that no wrong can right a wrong, I almost grieve that I cried shame upon the counsel of Metem. Sweet lady, be sure of this, that I will give all I have, even to my life, to protect you from the vile fate you dread--yes, all I have--except my soul."

"Ah!" she cried with a sudden flash of her dark eyes, "all except your soul. If we women could find the man who would risk both life and soul for us, then, were he but a slave, we would worship him as never man was worshipped since Baaltis mounted her heavenly throne."

"Were I not a Hebrew you would tempt me, lady," Aziel answered smiling, "but being one I may not risk my soul even were such a prize within my reach."

"Nay, Prince," she broke in, "I did but jest; forget my words, for they were wrung from a heart torn with fears. Oh! did you know the terror of this half-savage Ithobal which oppresses me, you would forgive me all--a terror that to-night lies upon me with a tenfold weight."

"Why so, lady?"

"Doubtless because it is nearer," Elissa whispered, but her beautiful pleading eyes and quivering lips seemed to belie her words and say, "because you are near, and a change has come upon me."

For the second time that day Aziel's glance met hers, and for the second time a strange new pang that was more pain than joy, and yet half-divine, snatched at his heart-strings, for a while numbing his reason and taking from him the power of speech.

"What was it?" he wondered vaguely. He had seen many lovely faces, and many noble women had shown him favour, but why had none of them stirred him thus? Could it be that this stranger Gentile maiden was his soul-mate--she whom he was destined to love above all upon the earth, nay, whom he did already love, and so soon?

"Lady," he said, taking a step towards her, "lady----" and he paused.

Elissa bowed her dark head till her gold-bedecked and scented hair almost fell upon his feet, but she made no answer.

Then another voice broke upon the silence, a clear, strident voice that said:--

"Prince, forgive me, if for the second time to-day I disturb you; but the guests have gone; your chamber is made ready, and, not knowing the customs of the women of this country, I sought you, little guessing that, at such an hour, I should find you alone with one of them."

Aziel looked up, although there was no need for him to do so, for he knew that voice well, to see the tall form of the Levite Issachar standing before them, a cold light of anger shining in his eyes.

Elissa saw also, and, with some murmured words of farewell, she turned and went, leaving them together.