Chapter V. The Place of Sacrifice
 

Suddenly Aziel, looking up from his reverie, saw the Phoenician bowing before him, cap in hand.

"May the Prince live for ever," he said, "yet if he suffer melancholy to overcome him thus, his life, however long, will be but sad."

"I was only thinking, Metem," answered Aziel with a start.

"Of the lady Elissa, whom you rescued, Prince? Ah! I guessed as much. She is beautiful, is she not--I have never seen the equal of those dreamy eyes and that mysterious smile--and learned also, though myself, in a woman I prefer the beauty without the learning. It is a pity now that she should chance to be a priestess of our worship, for that will not please the holy Issachar whom, I fear, Prince, you find a stern guide for the feet of youth."

"Your business, merchant?" broke in Aziel.

"I crave your pardon, Prince," answered the Phoenician, spreading out his hands in deprecation. "I struck a good bargain for my wares this morning, and drank wine to seal it, therefore, let me be forgiven if I have spoken too freely in your presence, Prince. This is my business: Yonder in the temple they celebrate a service which it is lawful for strangers to witness, and as the opportunity is rare, I thought that, having heard something of our mysteries in the grove last night, you might wish to see the office. If this be so, I am come to guide you."

"Aziel's first impulse was to refuse to go; indeed, the words of dismissal were on his lips when another purpose entered his mind. For this once he would look upon these abominations and learn what part Elissa played in them, and thus be cured for ever of the longings that had seized him.

"What is the ceremony?" he asked.

"A sacrifice for the recovery of the lady Baaltis who is sick, Prince."

"And what is the sacrifice?" asked Aziel.

"A dove, as I am told," was the indifferent answer.

"I will come with you, Metem."

"So be it, Prince. Your retinue awaits you at the gate."

At the main entrance to the palace Aziel found his guard and other servants gathered there to escort him. With them was Issachar, whom he greeted, asking him if he knew the errand upon which they were bent.

"I do, Prince; it is to witness the abomination of a sacrifice of these heathens."

"Will you then accompany me there, Issachar?"

"Where my lord goes I go," answered the Levite gravely. "Moreover, Prince, if you have your reasons for wishing to see this devil- worship, I may have mine."

Then they set out, Metem guiding them. At the north gate of the temple, which was not more than a yard in width, the Phoenician spoke to the guards on duty, who drew back to let them pass. In single file, for the passages were too narrow to allow of any other means of progression, they threaded the tortuous and mazy paths of the great building, passing between huge walls built of granite blocks laid without mortar, till at length they reached a large open space. Here the ceremony had already begun. Almost in the centre of this space, which was paved with blocks of granite, stood two conical towers, the larger of which measured thirty feet in height and the smaller about half as much. These towers, also build of blocks of stone, were, as Metem informed them, sacred to and emblematical of the gods El and Baaltis. In front of them was a platform surmounted by a stone altar, and between them, built in a pit in the ground, burned a great furnace of wood. All the centre of the enclosure was occupied by the marshalled ranks of the priests and priestesses. Without this sacred ring stood the closely packed masses of spectators, amongst whom Aziel and his following were given place, though some of the more pious worshippers murmured audibly at the admission of these Jews.

When they entered, the companies of priests and priestesses were finishing a prayer, the sentences of which they chanted alternately with strange effect. In part it was formal, and in part an improvised supplication to the protecting gods to restore health to that woman or high-priestess who was known as the lady Baaltis. The prayer ended, a beautiful bold-faced girl advanced to an open space in front of the altar, and with a sudden movement threw off her white robe, revealing herself to the spectators in a many-coloured garment of gauze, through which her fair flesh gleamed.

The black hair of this woman was adorned with a coronet of scarlet flowers and hung loose about her; her feet and arms were naked, and in each hand she held a knife of bronze. Very slowly she began to dance, her painted lips parted as though to speak, and her eyes, brightened with pigments, turned up to heaven. By degrees her movements grew more rapid, till at length, as she whirled round, her long locks streamed out straight upon the air and the crown of flowers looked like a scarlet ring. Suddenly the bronze knife in her right hand flashed, and a spot of red appeared above her left breast; then the knife in the left hand flashed, and another spot appeared over the right breast. At each stroke the multitude cried, "Ah!" as with one voice, and then were silent.

Now the maddened dancer, ceasing her whirlings, leapt high into the air, clashing the knives above her head and crying, "Hear me, hear me, Baaltis!"

Again she leapt, and this time the answer that came from her lips was spoken in another voice, which said, "I am present. What seek you?"

A third time the priestess leapt, replying in her own voice, "Health for thy servant who is sick." Then came the answer in the second voice --"I hear you, but I see no sacrifice."

"What sacrifice would'st thou, O Queen? A dove?"

"Nay."

"What then, Queen?"

"One only, the first-born child of a woman."

As this command, which they supposed to be divine and from above, issued out of the lips of the gashed and bleeding Pythoness, the multitude that hitherto had listened in perfect silence, shouted aloud, while the girl herself, utterly exhausted, fell to the earth swooning.

Now the high priest of El, who was named the Shadid, none other indeed than the husband of her who lay sick, sprang upon the platform and cried:--

"The goddess has spoken by the mouth of her oracle. She who is the mother of all demands one life out of the many she has given, that the Lady Baaltis, who is her priestess upon earth, may be recovered of her sickness. Say, who will lay down a life for the honour of the goddess, and that her regent in this land may be saved alive?"

Now--for all this scene had been carefully prepared--a woman stepped forward, wearing the robe of a priestess, who bore in her arms a drugged and sleeping child.

"I, father," she cried in a shrill, hard voice, though her lips trembled as she spoke. "Let the goddess take this child, the first- fruit of my body, that our mother the Lady Baaltis may be cured of her sickness, and that I, her daughter, may be blessed by the goddess, and through me, all we who worship her." And she held out the little victim towards him.

The Shadid stretched out his arms to take it, but he never did take it, for at that moment appeared upon the platform the tall and bearded figure of Issachar clad in his white robes.

"Hold!" he cried in a loud, clear voice, "and touch not the innocent child. Spawn of Satan, would you do murder to appease the devils whom you worship? Well shall they repay you, people of Zimboe. Oh! mine eyes are open and I see," he went on, shaking his thin arms above his head in a prophetic frenzy. "I see the sword of the true God, and it flames above this city of idolaters and abominations. I see this place of sacrifice, and I tell you that before the moon is young again it shall run red with the blood of you, idol worshippers, and of you, women of the groves. The heathen is at your gates, ye followers of demons, and my God sends them as He sends the locusts of the north wind to devour you like grass, to sweep you away like the dust of the desert. Cry then upon El and Baaltis, and let El and Baaltis save you if they can. Doom is upon you; Azrael, angel of death, writes his name upon your foreheads, every one of you, giving your city to the owls, your bodies to the jackals, and your souls to Satan----"

Thus far the priests and the spectators had listened to Issachar's denunciations in bewildered amazement not unmixed with fear. Now with a roar of wrath they awoke, and suddenly he was dragged from the platform by a score of hands and struck down with many blows. Indeed, he would then and there have been torn to pieces had not a guard of soldiers, knowing that he was Sakon's guest and in the train of the prince Aziel, snatched him from the maddened multitude, and borne him swiftly to a place of safety without the enclosure.

While the tumult was at its height, a Phoenician, who had arrived in the temple breathless with haste, might have been seen to pluck Metem by the sleeve.

"What is it?" Metem asked of the man, who was his servant.

"This: the lady Baaltis is dead. I watched as you bade me, and, as she had promised to do, in token of the end, her woman waved a napkin from the casement of that tower where she lies."

"Do any know of this?"

"None."

"Then say no word of it," and Metem hurried off in search of Aziel.

Presently he found him seeking for Issachar in company with his guards.

"Have no fear, Prince," Metem said, in answer to his eager questions, "he is safe enough, for the soldiers have borne the fool away. Pardon me that I should speak thus of a holy man, but he has put all our lives in danger."

"I do not pardon you," answered Aziel hotly, "and I honour Issachar for his act and words. Let us begone from this accursed place whither you entrapped me."

Before Metem could reply a voice cried, "Close the doors of the sanctuary, so that none can pass in or go out, and let the sacrifice be offered."

"Listen, Prince," said Metem, "you must stay here till the ceremony is done."

"Then I tell you, Phoenician," answered Aziel, "that rather than suffer that luckless child to be butchered before my eyes I will cut my way to it with my guards, and rescue it alive."

"To leave yourself dead in place of it," answered Metem sarcastically; "but, see, a woman desires to speak with you," and he pointed to a girl in the robe of a priestess, whose face was hidden with a veil, and who, in the tumult and confusion, had worked her way to Aziel.

"Prince," whispered the veiled form, "I am Elissa. For your life's sake keep still and silent, or you will be stabbed, for your words have been overheard, and the priests are mad at the insult that has been put upon them."

"Away with you, woman," answered Aziel; "what have I to do with a girl of the groves and a murderess of children?"

She winced at his bitter words, but said quietly:--

"Then on your own head be your blood, Prince, which I have risked much to keep unshed. But before you die, learn that I knew nothing of this foul sacrifice, and that gladly would I give my own life to save that of yonder child."

"Save it, and I will believe you," answered the prince, turning from her.

Elissa slipped away, for she saw that the priestesses, her companions, were reforming their ranks, and that she must not tarry. When she had gone a few yards, a hand caught her by the sleeve, and the voice of Metem, who had overheard something of this talk, whispered in her ear:--

"Daughter of Sakon, what will you give me if I show you a way to save the life of the child, and with it that of the prince, and at the same time to make him think well of you again?"

"All my jewels and ornaments of gold, and they are many," she answered eagerly.

"Good; it is a bargain. Now listen: The lady Baaltis is dead; she died a few minutes since, and none here know it save myself and one other, my servant, nor can any learn it, for the gates are shut. Do you be, therefore, suddenly inspired--of the gods--and say so, for then the sacrifice must cease, seeing that she for whom it was to be offered is dead. Do you understand?"

"I understand," she answered, "and though the blasphemy bring on me the vengeance of Baaltis, yet it shall be dared. Fear not, your pay is good," and she pressed forward to her place, keeping the veil wrapped about her head till she reached it unobserved, for in the general confusion none had noticed her movements.

When the noise of shouting and angry voices had at length died away, and the spectators were driven back outside the sacred circle, the priest upon the platform cried:--

"Now that the Jew blasphemer has gone, let the sacrifice be offered, as is decreed."

"Yea, let the sacrifice be offered," answered the multitude, and once more the woman with the sleeping child stepped forward. But before the priest could take it another figure approached him, that of Elissa, with arms outstretched and eyes upturned.

"Hold, O priest!" she said, "for the goddess, breathing on my brow, inspires me, and I have a message from the goddess."

"Draw near, daughter, and speak it in the ears of men," the priest answered wondering, for he found it hard to believe in such inspiration, and indeed would have denied her a hearing had he dared.

So Elissa climbed the platform, and standing upon it still with outstretched hands and upturned face, she said in a clear voice:--

"The goddess refuses the sacrifice, since she has taken to herself her for whom it was to have been offered--the Lady Baaltis is dead."

At this tidings a groan went up from the people, partly of grief for the loss of a spiritual dignitary who was popular, and partly of disappointment because now the sacrifice could not be offered. For the Phoenicians loved these horrible spectacles, which were not, however, commonly celebrated by daylight and in the presence of the people.

"It is a lie," cried a voice, "but now the Lady Baaltis was living."

"Let the gates be opened, and send to see whether or no I lie," said Elissa, quietly.

Then for a while there was silence while a priest went upon the errand. At length he was seen returning. Pushing his way through the crowd, he mounted the platform, and said:--

"The daughter of Sakon speaks truth; alas! the lady Baaltis is dead."

Elissa sighed in relief, for had her tidings proved false she could scarcely have hoped to escape the fury of the crowd.

"Ay!" she cried, "she is dead, as I told you, and because of your sin, who would have offered human sacrifice in public, against the custom of our faith and city and without the command of the goddess."

*****

Then in sullen silence the priests and priestesses reformed their ranks, and departed from the sanctuary, whence they were followed by the spectators, the most of them in no good mood, for they had been baulked of the promised spectacle.