Chapter VI. The Hall of Audience
 

When Elissa reached her chamber after the break up of the procession, she threw herself upon her couch, and burst into a passion of tears. Well might she weep, for she had been false to her oath as a priestess, uttering as a message from the goddess that which she had learnt from the lips of man. More, she could not rid herself of the remembrance of the scorn and loathing with which the Prince Aziel had looked upon her, or of the bitter insult of his words when he called her, "a girl of the groves, and a murderess of children."

It chanced that, so far as Elissa was concerned, these charges were utterly untrue. None could throw a slur upon her, and as for these rare human sacrifices, she loathed the very name of them, nor, unless forced to it, would she have been present had she guessed that any such offering was intended.

Like most of the ancient religions, that of the Phoenicians had two sides to it--a spiritual and a material side. The spiritual side was a worship of the far-off unknown divinity, symbolised by the sun, moon and planets, and visible only in their majestic movements, and in the forces of nature. To this Elissa clung, knowing no truer god, and from those forces she strove to wring their secret, for her heart was deep. Lonely invocations to the goddess beneath the light of the moon appealed to her, for from them she seemed to draw strength and comfort, but the outward ceremonies of her faith, or the more secret and darker of them, of which in practice she knew little, were already an abomination in her eyes. And now what if the Jew prophet spoke truly? What if this creed of hers were a lie, root and branch, and there did lie in the heavens above a Lord and Father who heard and answered the prayers of men, and who did not seek of them the blood of the children He had given?

A great doubt took hold of Elissa and shook her being, and with the doubt came hope. How was it--if her faith were true--that when she took the name of the goddess in vain, nothing had befallen her? She desired to learn more of this matter, but who was to teach her? The Levite turned from her with loathing as from a thing unclean, and there remained, therefore, but the prince Aziel, who had put her from him with those bitter words of scorn. Ah! why did they pain her so, piercing her heart as with a spear? Was it because--because--he had grown dear to her? Yes, that was the truth. She had learned it even as he cursed her; all her quick southern blood was alight with a new fire, the like of which she had never known before. And not her blood only, it was her spirit--her spirit that yearned to his. Had it not leapt within her at the first sight of him as to one most dear, one long-lost and found again? She loved him, and he loathed her, and oh! her lot was hard.

As Elissa lay brooding thus in her pain, the door opened and Sakon, her father, hurried into the chamber.

"What is it that chanced yonder?" he asked, for he had not been present in the sanctuary, "and, daughter, why do you weep?"

"I weep, father, because your guest, the prince Aziel, has called me 'a girl of the groves, and a murderess of children,'" she replied.

"Then, by my head, prince that he is, he shall answer for it to me," said Sakon, grasping at his sword-hilt.

"Nay, father, since to him I must have seemed to deserve the words. Listen." And she told him all that had passed, hiding nothing.

"Now it seems that trouble is heaped upon trouble," said the Phoenician when she had finished, "and they were mad who suffered the prince and that fierce Issachar to be present at the sacrifice. Daughter, I tell you this: though I am a worshipper of El and Baaltis, as my fathers were before me, I know that Jehovah of the Jews is a great and powerful Lord, and that His prophets do not prophesy falsely, for I have seen it in my youth, yonder in the coasts of Sidon. What did Issachar say? That before the moon was young again, this temple should run red with blood? Well, so it may happen, for Ithobal threatens war against us, and for your sake, my daughter."

"How for my sake, father?" she asked heavily, as one who knew what the answer would be.

"You know well, girl. Ever since you danced before him at the great welcoming feast I made in his honour a month ago the man is besotted of you; moreover, he is mad with jealousy of this new-comer, the prince Aziel. He has demanded public audience of me this afternoon, and I have it privately that then he will formally ask you in marriage before the people, and if he is refused will declare war upon the city, with which he has many an ancient quarrel. Yes, yes, king Ithobal is that sword of God which the Jew said he saw hanging over us, and should it fall it will be because of you, Elissa."

"The Jew did not say that, father; he said it would be because of the sins of the people and their idolatries."

"What does it matter what he said?" broke in Sakon hastily. "How shall I answer Ithobal?"

"Tell him," she replied with a strange smile, "that he does wisely to be jealous of the prince Aziel."

"What! Of the stranger who this very day reviled you in words of such shame, and so soon?" asked her father astonished.

Elissa did not speak in answer; she only looked straight before her, and nodded her head.

"Had ever man such a daughter?" Sakon went on in petulant dismay. "Truly it is a wise saying which tells that women love those best who beat them, be it with the tongue or with the fist. Not but what I would gladly see you wedded to a prince of Israel and of Egypt rather than of this half-bred barbarian, but the legions of Solomon and of Pharaoh are far away, whereas Ithobal has a hundred thousand spears almost at our gate."

"There is no need to speak of such things, father," she said, turning aside, "since, even were I willing, the prince would have nought to do with me, who am a priestess of Baaltis."

"The matter of religion might be overcome," suggested Sakon; "but, no, for many reasons it is impossible. Well, this being so, daughter, I may answer Ithobal that you will wed him."

"I!" she said; "I wed that black-hearted savage? My father, you may answer what you will, but of this be sure, that I will go to my grave before I pass as wife to the board of Ithobal."

"Oh! my daughter," pleaded Sakon, "think before you say it. As his wife at least you, who are not of royal blood, will be a queen, and the mother of kings. But if you refuse, then either I must force you, which is hateful to me, or there will be such a war as the city has not known for generations, for Ithobal and his tribes have many grievances against us. By the gift of yourself, for a while, at any rate, you can, as it chances, make peace between us, but if that is withheld, then blood will run in rivers, and perhaps this city, with all who live in it, will be destroyed, or at the least its trade must be ruined and its wealth stolen away."

"If it is decreed that all these things are to be, they will be," answered Elissa calmly, "seeing that this war has threatened us for many years, and that a woman must think of herself first, and of the fate of cities afterwards. Of my own free will I shall never take Ithobal for husband. Father, I have said."

"Of the fate of cities, yes; but how of my fate, and that of those we love? Are we all to be ruined, and perhaps slaughtered, to satisfy your whim, girl?"

"I did not say so, father. I said that of my own free will I would not wed Ithobal. If you choose to give me to him you have the right to do it, but know then that you give me to my death. Perhaps it is best that it should be thus."

Sakon knew his daughter well, and it did not need that he should glance at her face to learn that she meant her words. Also he loved her, his only child, more dearly than anything on earth.

"In truth my strait is hard, and I know not which way to turn," he said, covering his face with his hand.

"Father," she replied, laying her fingers lightly on his shoulder, "what need is there to answer him at once? Take a month, or if he will not give it, a week. Much may happen in that time."

"The counsel is wise," he said, catching at this straw. "Daughter, be in the great hall of audience with your attendants three hours after noon, for then we must receive Ithobal boldly in all pomp, and deal with him as best we may. And now I go to ask peace for the Levite from the priests of El, and to discover whom the sacred colleges desire to nominate as the new Baaltis. Doubtless it will be Mesa, the daughter of her who is dead, though many are against her. Oh! if there were no priests and no women, this city would be easier to govern," and with an impatient gesture Sakon left the room.

****

It was three o'clock in the afternoon, and the great hall of audience in Zimboe was crowded with a brilliant assemblage. There sat Sakon, the governor, and with him his council of the notables of the city; there were prince Aziel and among his retinue, Issachar the prophet, fierce-eyed as ever, though hardly recovered from the rough handling he had experienced in the temple. There were representatives of the college of the priests of El. There were many ladies, wives and daughters of dignitaries and wealthy citizens, and with them a great crowd of spectators of all classes gathered in the lower part of the hall, for a rumour had spread about that the farewell audience given by Sakon to King Ithobal was likely to be stormy.

When all were gathered, a herald announced that Ithobal, King of the Tribes, waited to take his leave of Sakon, Governor of Zimboe, before departing to his own land on the morrow.

"Let him be admitted," said Sakon, who looked weary and ill at ease. Then as the herald bowed and left, he turned and whispered something into the ear of his daughter Elissa, who stood behind his chair, her face immovable as that of an Egyptian Sphinx, but magnificently apparelled in gleaming robes and jewelled ornaments--which Metem, looking on them, reflected with satisfaction were now his property.

Presently, preceded by a burst of savage music, Ithobal entered. He was gorgeously arrayed in a purple Tyrian robe decked with golden chains, while on the brow, in token of his royalty, he wore a golden circlet in which was set a single blood-red stone. Before him walked a sword-bearer carrying a sword of ceremony, a magnificent ivory-handled weapon encrusted with rough gems and inlaid with gold, while behind him, clad in barbaric pomp, marched a number of counsellors and attendants, huge and half-savage men who glared wonderingly at the splendour of the place and its occupants. As the king came, Sakon rose from his chair of state and, advancing down the hall, took him by the hand and led him to a similar chair placed at a little distance.

Ithobal seated himself and looked around the hall. Presently his glance fell upon Aziel, and he scowled.

"Is it common, Sakon," he asked, "that the seat of a prince should be set higher than that of a crowned king?" And he pointed to the chair of Aziel, which was placed a little above his own upon the das.

The governor was about to answer when Aziel said coldly:--

"Where it was pointed out to me that I should sit, there I sat, though, for aught I care, the king Ithobal may take my place. The grandson of Pharaoh and of Solomon does not need to dispute for precedence with the savage ruler of savage tribes."

Ithobal sprang to his feet and cried, grasping his sword:--

"By my father's soul, you shall answer for this, Princelet."

"You should have sworn by your mother's soul, King Ithobal," replied Aziel quietly, "for doubtless it is the black blood in your veins that causes you to forget your courtesy. For the rest, I answer to no man save to my king."

"Yet there is one other who will make you answer," replied Ithobal, in a voice thick with rage, "and here he is," and he drew his sword and flashed it before the prince's eyes. "Or if you fear to face him, then the wands of my slaves shall cause you to cry me pardon."

"If you desire to challenge me to combat, king Ithobal, for this purpose only I am your servant, though the fashion of your challenging is not that of any nation which I know."

Before Ithobal could reply, Sakon cried out in a loud voice:--

"Enough, enough! Is this a place for brawling, king Ithobal, and would you seek to fix a quarrel upon my guest, the prince Aziel, here in my council chamber, and to bring upon me the wrath of Israel, of Tyre, and of Egypt? Be sure that the prince shall cross no swords with you; no, not if I have to set him under guard to keep him safe. To your business, king Ithobal, or I break up this assembly and send you under escort to our gates."

Now his counsellors plucked Ithobal by the sleeve and whispered to him some advice, which at last he seemed to take with an ill grace, for, turning, he said, "So be it. This is my business, Sakon: For many years I and the countless tribes whom I rule have suffered much at the hands of you Phoenicians, who centuries ago settled here in my country as traders. That you should trade we are content, but not that you should establish yourselves as a sovereign power, pretending to be my equals who are my servants. Therefore, in the name of my nation, I demand that the tribute which you pay to me for the use of the mines of gold shall henceforth be doubled; that the defences of this city be thrown down; and that you cease to enslave the natives of the land to labour in your service. I have spoken."

Now as these arrogant demands reached their ears, the company assembled in the hall murmured with anger and astonishment, then turned to wait for Sakon's answer.

"And if we refuse these small requests of yours, O King?" asked the governor sarcastically, "what then? Will you make war upon us?"

"First tell me, Sakon, if you do refuse them?"

"In the name of the cities of Tyre and Sidon whom I serve, and of Hiram my master, I refuse them one and all," answered Sakon with dignity.

"Then, Sakon, I am minded to bring up a hundred thousand men against you and to sweep you and your city from the face of earth," said Ithobal. "Yet I remember that I also have Phoenician blood in my veins mixed with the nobler and more ancient blood at which yonder upstart jeers, and therefore I would spare you. I remember also that for generations there has been peace and amity between my forefathers and the Council of this city, and therefore I would spare you. Behold, then, I build a bridge whereby you may escape, asking but one little thing of you in proof that you are indeed my friend, and it is that you give me your daughter, the lady Elissa, whom I seek to make my queen. Think well before you answer, remembering that upon this answer may hang the lives of all who listen to you, ay, and of many thousand others."

For a while there was silence in the assemblage, and every eye was fixed upon Elissa, who stood neither moving nor speaking, her face still set like that of a Sphinx, and almost as unreadable. Aziel gazed at her with the rest, and his eyes she felt alone of all the hundreds that were bent upon her. Indeed, so strongly did they draw her, that against her own will she turned her head and met them. Then remembering what had passed between herself and the prince that very day, she coloured faintly and looked down, neither the glance nor the blush escaping the watchful Ithobal.

Presently Sakon spoke:--

"King Ithobal," he said, "I am honoured indeed that you should seek my daughter as your queen, but she is my only child, whom I love, and I have sworn to her that I will not force her to marry against her will, whoever be the suitor. Therefore, King, take your answer from her own lips, for whatever it be it is my answer."

"Lady," said Ithobal, "you have heard your father's words; be pleased to say that you look with favour upon my suit, and that you will deign to share my throne and power."

Elissa took a step forward on the das and curtseyed low before the king.

"O King!" she said, "I am your handmaid, and great indeed is the favour that you would do your servant. Yet, King, I Pray of you search out some fairer woman of a more royal rank to share your crown and sceptre, for I am all unworthy of them, and to those words on this matter which I have spoken in past days I have none to add." Then again she curtseyed, adding, "King, I am your servant."

Now a murmur of astonishment went up from the audience, for few of them thought it possible that Elissa, who, however beautiful, was but the daughter of a noble, could refuse to become the wife of a king. Ithobal alone did not seem to be astonished, for he had expected this answer.

"Lady," he said, repressing with an effort the passions which were surging within him, "I think that I have something to offer to the woman of my choice, and yet you put me aside as lightly as though I had neither name, nor power, nor station. This, as it seems to me, can be read in one way only, that your heart is given elsewhere."

"Have it as you will, King," answered Elissa, "my heart is given elsewhere."

"And yet, lady, not four suns gone you swore to me that you loved no man. Since then it seems that you have learned to love, and swiftly, and it is yonder Jew whom you have chosen." And he pointed to the prince Aziel.

Again Elissa coloured, this time to the eyes, but she showed no other sign of confusion.

"May the king pardon me," she said, "and may the prince Aziel, whose name has thus been coupled with mine, pardon me. I said indeed that my heart was given elsewhere, but I did not say it was given to any man. May not the heart of a mortal maid-priestess be given to the Ever- living?"

Now for a moment the king was silenced, while a murmur of applause at her ready wit went round the audience. But before it died away a voice at the far end of the hall called out:--

"Perchance the lady does not know that yonder in Egypt, and in Jerusalem also, prince Aziel is named the Ever-living."

Now it was Elissa's turn to be overcome.

"Nay, I knew it not," she said; "how should I know it? I spoke of that Dweller in the heavens whom I worship----"

"And behold, the title fits a dweller on the earth whom you must also worship, for such omens do not come by chance," cried the same voice, but from another quarter of the crowded hall.

"I ask pardon," broke in Aziel, "and leave to speak. It is true that owing to a certain birth-mark which I bear, among the Egyptians I have been given the bye-name of the Ever-living, but it is one which this lady can scarcely have heard, therefore jest no more upon a chance accident of words. Moreover, if you be men, cease to heap insult upon a woman. I who am almost a stranger here have not dared to ask the lady Elissa for her favour."

"Ay, but you will ask and she will grant," answered the same voice, the owner of which none could discover--for he seemed to speak from every part of the chamber.

"Indeed," went on Aziel, not heeding the interruption, "the last words between us were words of anger, for we quarrelled on a matter of religion."

"What of that?" cried the voice; "love is the highest of religions, for do not the Phoenicians worship it?"

"Seize yonder knave," shouted Sakon, and search was made but without avail. Afterwards, however, Aziel remembered that once, when they were weather-bound on their journey from the coast, Metem had amused them by making his voice sound from various quarters of the hut in which they lay. Then Ithobal rose and said:--

"Enough of this folly; I am not here to juggle with words, or to listen to such play. Whether the lady Elissa spoke of the gods she serves or of a man is one to me. I care not of whom she spoke, but for her words I do care. Now hearken, you city of traders: If this is to be thy answer, then I break down that bridge which I have built, and it is war between you and my Tribes, war to the end. But let her change her words, and whether she loves me or loves me not, come to be my wife, and, for my day, the bridge shall stand; for once that we are wed I can surely teach her love, or if I cannot, at least it is she I seek with or without her love. Reflect then, lady, and reply again, remembering how much hangs upon your lips."

"Do you think, king Ithobal," Elissa answered, looking at him with angry eyes, "that a woman such as I am can be won by threats? I have spoken, king Ithobal."

"I know not," he replied; "but I do know that she can be won by force, and then surely, lady, your pride shall pay the price, for you shall be mine, but not my queen."

Now one of the council rose and said:--

"It seems, Sakon, that there is more in this matter than whether or no the king Ithobal pleases your daughter. Is the city then to be plunged into a great war, of which none can see the end, because one woman looks askance upon a man? Better that a thousand girls should be wedded where they would not than that such a thing should happen. Sakon, according to our ancient law you have the right to give your daughter in marriage where and when you will. We demand, therefore, that for the good of the commonwealth, you should exercise this right, and hand over the lady Elissa to king Ithobal."

This speech was received with loud and general shouts of approval, for no Phoenician audience would have been willing to sacrifice its interests for a thing so trivial as the happiness of a woman.

"Between the desire of a beloved daughter to whom I have pledged my word and my duty to the great city over which I rule, my strait is hard indeed," answered Sakon. "Hearken, king Ithobal, I must have time. Give me eight days from now in which to answer you, for if you will not, I deny your suit."

Ithobal seemed about to refuse the demand of Sakon. Then once more his counsellors plucked him by the sleeve, pointing out to him that if he did this, it was likely that none of them would leave the city alive. At some sign from the governor, they whispered, the captains of the guard were already hastening from the hall.

"So be it, Sakon," he said. "To-night I camp without your walls, which are no longer safe for one who has threatened war against them, and on the eighth day from this see to it that your heralds being me the Lady Elissa and peace--or I make good my threat. Till then, farewell." And placing himself in the midst of his company king Ithobal left the hall.