Chapter VII. The Black Dwarf
 

Some two hours had passed since the break-up of the assembly in the great hall. Prince Aziel was seated in his chamber, when the keeper of the door announced that a woman was without who desired to speak with him. He gave orders that she should be admitted, and presently a veiled figure entered the room and bowed before him.

"Be pleased to unveil, and to tell me your business," he said.

With some reluctance his visitor withdrew the wrapping from her head, revealing a face which Aziel recognised as one that he had seen among the waiting women who attended on Elissa.

"My message is for your ear, Prince," she said, glancing at the man who had ushered her into the chamber.

"It is not my custom to receive strangers thus alone," said the prince; "but be it as you will," and he motioned to the servant to retire without the door. "I await your pleasure," he added, when the man had gone.

"It is here," she answered, and drew from her bosom a little papyrus roll.

"Who wrote this?" he asked.

"I know not, Prince; it was given to me to pass on to you."

Then he opened the roll and read. It ran thus: "Though we parted with bitter words, still in my sore distress I crave the comfort of your counsel. Therefore, since I am forbidden to speak with you openly, meet me, I beseech you, at moonrise in the palace garden under the shade of the great fig tree with five roots, where I shall be accompanied only by one I trust. Bring no man with you for my safety's sake.--Elissa."

Aziel thrust the scroll into his robe, and thought awhile. Then he gave the waiting lady a piece of gold and said:--

"Tell her who sent you that I obey her words. Farewell."

This message seemed to puzzle the woman, who opened her lips to speak. Then, changing her mind, she turned and went.

Scarcely had she gone when the Phoenician, Metem, was ushered into the room.

"O Prince," he said maliciously, "pardon me if I caution you. Yet in truth if veiled ladies flit thus through your apartments in the light of day, it will reach the ears of the holy but violent Issachar, of whose doings I come to speak. Then, Prince, I tremble for you."

Aziel made a movement half-impatient and half-contemptuous. "The woman is a serving-maid," he said, "who brought me a message that I understand but little. Tell me, Metem, for you know this place of old, does there stand in the palace garden a great fig tree with five roots?"

"Yes, Prince; at least such a tree used to grow there when last I visited this country. It was one of the wonders of the town, because of its size. What of it?"

"Little, except that I must be under it at moonrise. See and read, since whatever you may say of yourself, you are, I think, no traitor."

"Not if I am well paid to keep counsel, Prince," Metem answered with a smile. Then he read the scroll.

"I am glad that the noble lady brings an attendant with her," he said as he returned it, with a bow. "The gossips of Zimboe are censorious, and might misinterpret this moonlight meeting, as indeed would Sakon and Issachar. Well, doves will coo and maids will woo, and unless I can make money out of it the affair is none of mine."

"Have I not told you that there is no question of wooing?" asked the prince angrily. "I go only to give her what counsel I can in the matter of the suit of this savage, Ithobal. The lady Elissa and I have quarrelled beyond repair over that accursed sacrifice----"

"Which her ready wit prevented," put in Metem.

"But I promised last night that I would help her if I could," the prince went on, "and I always keep my word."

"I understand, Prince. Well, since you turn from the lady, whose name with yours is so much in men's mouths just now, doubtless you will give her wise counsel, namely, to wed Ithobal, and lift the shadow of war from this city. Then, indeed, we shall all be grateful to you, for it seems that no one else can move her stubbornness. And, by the way: If, when she has listened to your wisdom, the daughter of Sakon should chance to explain to you that the sight of this day's attempted sacrifice filled her with horror, and that she parted with every jewel she owns to put an end to it--well, her words will be true. But, since you have quarrelled, they will have no more interest for you, Prince, than has my talk about them. So now to other matters." And Metem began to speak of the conduct of Issachar in the sanctuary, and of the necessity of guarding him against assassination at the hands of the priests of El as a consequence of his religious zeal. Presently he was gone, leaving Aziel somewhat bewildered.

Could it be true, as she herself had told him, and as Metem now asserted, that Elissa had not participated willingly in the dark rites in the temple? If so he had misjudged her and been unjust; indeed, what atonement could suffice for such words as he had used towards her? Well, to some extent she must have understood and forgiven them, otherwise she would scarcely have sought his aid, though he knew not how he could help her in her distress.

*****

When Elissa returned from the assembly, she laid herself down to rest, worn out in mind and body. Soon sleep came to her, and with the sleep dreams. At first these were vague and shadowy, then they grew more clear. She dreamed that she saw a dim and moonlit garden, and in it a vast tree with twisted roots that seemed familiar to her. Something moving among the branches of this tree attracted her attention, but for a long while she watched it without being able to discover what it was. Now she saw. The moving thing was a hideous black dwarf with beady eyes, who held in his hand a little ivory tipped bow, on the string of which was set an arrow. Her consciousness concentrated itself upon this arrow, and though she knew not how, she became aware that it was poisoned. What was the dwarf doing in the tree with a bow and poisoned arrow, she wondered? Suddenly a sound seemed to strike her ear, the sound of a man's footsteps walking over grass, and she perceived that the figure of the dwarf, crouched upon the bough, became tense and alert, and that his fingers tightened upon the bow- string until the blood was driven from their yellow tips. Following the glance of his wicked black eyes, she saw advancing through the shadow a tall man clad in a dark robe. Now he emerged into a patch of moonlight and stood looking around him as though he were searching for some one. Then the dwarf raised himself to his knees upon the bough, and, aiming at the bare throat of the man, drew the bow-string to his ear. At this moment the victim turned his head and the moonlight shone full upon his face. It was that of the prince Aziel.

*****

Elissa awoke from her vision with a little cry, then rose trembling, and strove to comfort herself in the thought that although it was so very vivid she had dreamed but a dream. Still shaken and unnerved, she passed into another chamber, and made pretence to eat of the meal that was made ready for her, for it was now the hour of sunset. While she was thus employed, it was announced that the Phoenician, Metem, desired to speak with her, and she commanded that he should be admitted.

"Lady," he said bowing, so soon as her attendants had withdrawn to the farther end of the chamber, "you can guess my errand. This morning I gave you certain tidings which proved both true and useful, and for those tidings you promised a reward."

"It is so," she said, and going to a chest she drew from it an ivory casket full of ornaments of gold and among them necklaces and other objects set with uncut precious stones. "Take them," she said, "they are yours; that is, save this gold chain alone, for it is vowed to Baaltis."

"But lady," he asked, "how can you appear before Ithobal the king thus robbed of all your ornaments?"

"I shall not appear before Ithobal the king," she answered sharply.

"You say so! Then what will the prince Aziel think of you when he sees you thus unadorned?"

"My beauty is my adornment," she replied, "not these gems and gold. Moreover, it is nought to me what he thinks, for he hates me, and has reviled me."

Metem lifted his eyebrows incredulously and went on: "Still, I will not deprive you of this woman's gear. Look now, I value it, and at no high figure," and drawing out his writer's palette and a slip of papyrus, he wrote upon it an acknowledgment of debt, which he asked her to sign.

"This document, lady," he said, "I will present to your father--or your husband--at a convenient season, nor do I fear that either of them will refuse to honour it. And now I take my leave, for you--have an appointment to keep--and," he added with emphasis, "the time of moonrise is at hand."

"Your meaning, I pray you?" she asked. "I have no appointment at moonrise, or at any other hour."

Metem bowed politely, but in a fashion which showed that he put no faith in her words.

"Again I ask your meaning, merchant," she said, "for your dark hintings are scarcely to be borne."

The Phoenician looked at her; there was a ring of truth in her voice.

"Lady," he said, "will you indeed deny, after I have seen it written by yourself, that within some few minutes you meet the prince Aziel beneath a great tree in the palace gardens, there--so said the scroll --to ask his aid in this matter of the suit of Ithobal?"

"Written by myself?" she said wonderingly. "Meet the prince Aziel beneath a tree in the palace gardens? Never have I thought of it."

"Yet, lady, the scroll I saw purported to be written by you, and your own woman bore it to the prince. As I think, she sits yonder at the end of the chamber, for I know her shape."

"Come hither," called Elissa, addressing the woman. "Now tell me, what scroll was this that you carried to-day to the prince Aziel, saying that I sent you?"

"Lady," answered the girl confusedly, "I never told the prince Aziel that you sent him the scroll."

"The truth, woman, the truth," said her mistress. "Lie not, or it will be the worse for you."

"Lady, this is the truth. As I was walking through the market-place an old black woman met me, and offered me a piece of gold if I would deliver a letter into the hand of the prince Aziel. The gold tempted me, for I had need of it, and I consented; but of who wrote the letter I know nothing, nor have I ever seen the woman before."

"You have done wrong, girl," said Elissa, "but I believe your tale. Now go."

When she had gone, Elissa stood for a while thinking; and, as she thought, Metem saw a look of fear gather on her face.

"Say," she asked him, "is there anything strange about the tree of which the scroll tells?"

"Its size is strange," he answered, "and it has five roots that stand above the ground."

As he spoke Elissa uttered a little cry.

"Ah!" she said, "it is the tree of my dream. Now--now I understand. Swift, oh! come with me swiftly, for see, the moon rises," and she sprang to the door followed by the amazed Metem.

Another minute, and they were speeding down the narrow street so fast that those who loitered there turned their heads and laughed, for they thought that a jealous husband pursued his wife. As Elissa fumbled at the hasp of the door of the garden, Metem overtook her.

"What means this hunt?" he gasped.

"That they have decoyed the prince here to murder him," she answered, and sped through the gateway.

"Therefore we must be murdered also. A woman's logic," the Phoenician reflected to himself as he panted after her.

Swiftly as Elissa had run down the street, here she redoubled her speed, flitting through the glades like some white spirit, and so rapidly that her companion found it difficult to keep her in view. At length they came to a large open space of ground where played the level beams of the rising moon, striking upon the dense green foliage of an immense tree that grew there. Round this tree Elissa ran, glancing about her wildly, so that for a few seconds Metem lost sight of her, for its mass was between them. When he saw her again she was speeding towards the figure of a man who stood in the open, about ten paces from the outer boughs of the tree. To this she pointed as she came, crying out aloud, "Beware! Beware!"

Another moment and she had almost reached the man, and still pointing began to gasp some broken words. Then, suddenly in the bright moonlight, Metem saw a shining point of light flash towards the pair from the darkness of the tree. It would seem that Elissa saw it also; at least, she leapt from the ground, her arm lifted above her head as though to catch the object. Then as her feet once more touched the earth her knees gave way, and she fell down with a moan of pain. Metem running on towards her, as he went perceived a shape, which looked like that of a black dwarf, slip from the shadow of the tree into some bushes beyond where it was lost. Now he was there, to find Elissa half-seated, half-lying on the ground, the prince Aziel bending over her, and fixed through the palm of her right hand, which she held up piteously, a little ivory-pointed arrow.

"Draw it out from the wound," he panted.

"It will not help me," she answered; "the arrow is poisoned."

With an exclamation, Metem knelt beside her, and, not heeding her groans of pain, drew the dart through the pierced palm. Then he tore a strip of linen from his robe, and knotting it round Elissa's wrist, he took a broken stick that lay near and twisted the linen till it almost cut into her flesh.

"Now, Prince," he said, "suck the wound, for I have no breath for it. Fear not, lady, I know an antidote for this arrow poison, and presently I will be back with the salve. Till then, if you would live, do not suffer that bandage to be loosed, however much it pains you," and he departed swiftly.

Aziel put his lips to the hurt to draw out the poison.

"Nay," she said faintly, trying to pull away her hand, "it is not fitting, the venom may kill you."

"It seems that it was meant for me," he answered, "so at the worst I do take but my own."

Presently, directing Elissa to hold her hand above her head, he put his arms about her and carried her a hundred paces or more into the open glade.

"Why do you move me?" she asked, her head resting on his shoulder.

"Because whoever it was that shot the arrow may return to try his fortune a second time, and here in the open his darts cannot reach us." Then he set her down upon the grass and stood looking at her.

"Listen, prince Aziel," Elissa said after a while, "the venom with which these black men soak their weapons is very strong, and unless Metem's salve be good, it may well chance that I shall die. Therefore before I die I wish to say a word to you. What brought you to this place to-night?"

"A letter from yourself, lady."

"I know it," she said, "but I did not write that letter; it was a snare, set, as I think, by the king Ithobal, who would do you to death in this way or in that. A messenger of his bribed my waiting-maid to deliver it, and afterwards I learnt the tale from Metem. Then, guessing all, I came hither to try to save you."

"But how could you guess all, lady?"

"In a strange fashion, Prince." And in a few words she told him her dream.

"This is marvellous indeed, that you should be warned of my danger by visions," he said wondering, and half-doubtingly.

"So marvellous, Prince, that you do not believe me," Elissa answered. "I know well what you think. You think that a woman to whom this very morning you spoke such words as women cannot well forgive, being revengeful laid a plot to murder you, and then, being a woman, changed her mind. Well, it is not so; Metem can prove it to you!"

"Lady, I believe you," he said, "without needing the testimony of Metem. But now the story grows still more strange, for if you had done me no wrong, how comes it that to preserve me from harm you set your tender flesh between the arrow and one who had reviled you?"

"It was by chance," she answered faintly. "I learnt the truth and ran to warn you. Then I saw the arrow fly towards your heart, and strove to grasp it, and it pierced me. It was by chance, by such a chance as made me dream your danger." And she fainted.