Chapter VIII. Aziel Plights His Troth
 

At first Aziel feared that the poison had done its work, and that Elissa was dead, till placing his hand upon her heart he felt it beating faintly, and knew that she did but swoon. To leave her to seek water or assistance was impossible, since he dared not loose his hold of the bandage about her wrist. So, patiently as he might, he knelt at her side awaiting the return of Metem.

How beautiful her pale face seemed there in the moonlight, set in its frame of dusky hair. And how strange was this tale of hers, of a dream that she had dreamed, a dream which, to save his own, led her to offer her life to the murderer's arrow. Many would not believe it, but he felt that it was true; he felt that even if she wished it she could not lie to him, for as he had known since first they met, their souls were open to each other. Yes, having thus been warned of his danger, she had offered her life for him--for him who that morning had called her, unjustly so Metem said, "a girl of the groves and a murderess." How came it that she had done this, unless indeed she loved him as--he loved her?

Aziel could no longer palter with himself, it was the truth. Last night when Issachar accused him, he had felt this, although then he would not admit it altogether, and now to-night he knew that his fate had found him. They would say that, after the common fashion of men, he had been conquered by a lovely face and form and a brave deed of devotion. But it was not so. Something beyond the flesh and its works and attributes drew him towards this woman, something that he could neither understand nor define (unless, indeed, the vision of Issachar defined it), but of which he had been conscious since first he set eyes upon her face. It was possible, it was even probable, that before another hour had gone by she would have passed beyond his reach, into the deeps of death, whither for a while he could not follow her. Yet he knew that the knowledge that she never could be his would not affect the love of her which burnt in him, for his desire towards her was not altogether a desire of the earth.

Aziel bent down over the swooning girl, looking into her pale face, till her lips almost touched his own, and his breath beating on her brow seemed to give her life again. Now she stirred, and now she opened her eyes and gazed back at him a while, deeply and with meaning, even as he gazed at her.

He spoke no word, for his lips seemed to be smitten with silence, but his heart said, "I love you, I love you," and her heart heard it, for she whispered back:--

"Bethink you who and what I am."

"It matters not, for we are one," he replied.

"Bethink you," she said again, "that soon I may be dead and lost to you."

"It cannot be, for we are one," he replied. "One we have been, one we are to-day, and one we shall be through all the length of life and death."

"Prince," she said again, "once more and for the last time I say: Bethink you well, for it comes upon me that your words are true, and that if I take that which to-night you offer, it will be for ever and for aye."

"For ever and aye, let it be," Aziel said, leaning towards her.

"For ever and for aye, let it be," she repeated, holding up her lips to his.

And thus in the silent moonlit garden they plighted their strange troth.

*****

"Lady," said a voice in their ears, the voice of Metem, "I pray you let me dress your hand, for there is no time to lose."

Aziel looked up to see the Phoenician bending over them with a sardonic smile, and behind him the tall form of Issachar, who stood regarding them, his arms folded on his breast.

"Holy Issachar," went on Metem with malice, "be pleased to hold this lady's hand, since it seems that the prince here can only tend her lips."

"Nay," answered the Levite, "what have I to do with this daughter of Baaltis? Cure her if you can, or if you cannot, let her die, for so shall a stone of stumbling be removed from the feet of the foolish." And he glanced indignantly at Aziel.

"Had it not been for this same stone at least the feet of the foolish by now would have pointed skywards. The gods send me such a stone if ever a black dwarf draws a poisoned arrow at me," answered Metem, as he busied himself with his drugs. Then he added, "Nay, Prince, do not stop to answer him, but hold the lady's hand to the light."

Aziel obeyed, and having washed out the wound with water, Metem rubbed ointment into it which burnt Elissa so sorely that she groaned aloud.

"Be patient beneath the pain, lady," he said, "for if it has not already passed into your blood, this salve will eat away the poison of the arrow."

Then half-leading and half-carrying her, they brought her back to the palace. Here Metem gave her over into the care of her father, telling him as much of the story as he thought wise, and cautioning him to keep silent concerning what had happened.

At the door of the palace Issachar spoke to Aziel.

"Did I dream, Prince," he said, "or did my ears indeed hear you tell that idolatress that you loved her for ever, and did my eyes see you kiss her on the lips?"

"It seems that you saw and heard these things, Issachar," said Aziel, setting his face sternly. "Now hear this further, and then I pray you give me peace on this matter of the lady Elissa: If in any way it is possible, I shall make her my wife, and if it be not possible, then for so long as she may live at least I will look upon no other woman."

"Then that is good news, Prince, to me, who am charged with your welfare, for be sure, if I can prevent you, you shall never mix your life with that of this heathen sorceress."

"Issachar," the prince replied, "I have borne much from you because I know well that you love me, and have stood to me in the place of a father. But now, in my turn, I warn you, do not seek to work harm to the lady Elissa, for in striking her you strike me, and such blows may bring my vengeance after them."

"Vengeance?" mocked the Levite. "I fear but one vengeance, and it is not yours, nor do I listen to the whisperings of love when duty points the path. Rather would I see you dead, prince Aziel, then lured down to hell by the wiles of yonder witch."

Then before Aziel could answer he turned and left him.

*****

As Issachar went to his own chamber full of bitterness and indignation, he passed the door of Elissa's apartments, and came face to face with Metem issuing from them.

"Will the woman live?" he asked of him.

"Be comforted, worthy Issachar. I think so; that is, if the bandage does not slip. I go to tell the prince."

"Gladly would I give a hundred golden shekels to him who brought me tidings that it had slipped and the woman with it, down to the arms of her father Beelzebub," broke in the Levite passionately.

"Pretty words for a holy man," said Metem, feigning amazement. "Well, Issachar, I will do most things for good money, but to shift that bandage would be but murder, and this I cannot work even for the gold and to win your favour."

"Fool," answered Issachar, "did I ask you to do murder? I do not fight with such weapons; let the woman live or die as it is decreed. Nay, enter my chamber, for I would speak with you, who are a cunning man versed in the craft of courts. Listen now: I love this prince Aziel, for I have reared him from his childhood, and he has been a son to me who have none. More, I am sent hither to this hateful land to watch him and hold him from harm, and for all that chances to him I must account. And now, what has chanced? This woman, Elissa, by her witcheries----"

"Softly, Issachar; what witcheries does she need beyond those lips and form and eyes?"

"By her witcheries, I tell you, has ensnared him so that now he swears that he will wed her."

"What of it, Issachar? He might travel far to find a lovelier woman."

"What of it, do you ask, remembering who he is? What of it, when you know his faith, and that this fair idolater will sap it, and cause him to cast away his soul? What of it, when with your own ears you heard him swear to love her through all the deeps of life and death? Man, are you mad?"

"No, but some might say that you are, holy father, who forget that I am also of this religion which you revile. But for good or ill, so the matter stands; and now what is it that you wish of me?"

"I wish that you should make it impossible that the prince Aziel should take this woman to wife. Not by murder, indeed, for 'thou shalt not kill,' saith the law, but by bringing it about that she should marry the king Ithobal, or if that fail, in any other fashion which seems good to you."

"'Thou shalt not kill,' saith your law; tell me then, Issachar, does it say also that thou shalt hand over a woman to a fate that she chances to hold to be worse than death? Doubtless it is foolish of her, and we should not heed such woman's folly. Yet this one has a certain strength of will, and I question if all the elders of the city will bring her living to the arms of Ithobal."

"It is nought to me, Metem, if she weds Ithobal, or weds him not, save that I do not love this heathen man, and surely her temper and her witcheries would bring ruin on him. What I would have you do is to prevent her from marrying Aziel; the way I leave to you."

"And what should I be paid for this service, holy Issachar?"

The Jew thought and answered, "A hundred golden shekels."

"Two hundred gold shekels," replied Metem reflectively, "nay, I am sure you said two hundred, Issachar. At least, I do not work for less, and it is a small sum enough, seeing that to earn it I must take upon myself the guilt of severing two loving hearts. But I know well that you are right, and that this would be an evil marriage for the prince Aziel, and also for the lady Elissa, who then day by day and year by year must bear the scourge of your reproaches, Issachar. Therefore I will do my best, not for the money indeed, but because I see herein a righteous duty. And now here is parchment, give me the lamp that I may prepare the bond."

"My word is my bond, Phoenician," answered the Levite haughtily.

Metem looked at him. "Doubtless," he said, "but you are old, and this is--a rough country where accidents chance at times. Still, the thing would read very ill, and, as you say, your word is your bond. Only remember, Issachar, two hundred shekels, bearing interest at two shekels a month. And now you are weary, holy Issachar, with plotting for the welfare of others, and so am I. Farewell, and good dreams to you."

The Levite watched him go, muttering to himself, "Alas that I should have fallen to such traffic with a knave, but it is for your sake and for your soul's sake, O Aziel my son. I pray that Fate be not too strong for me and you."

*****

For two days from this night Elissa lay almost senseless, and by many it was thought that she would die. But when Metem saw her on the morning after she had been wounded, and noted that her arm was but little swollen, and had not turned black, he announced that she would certainly live, whatever the doctors of the city might declare. Thereon Sakon, her father, and Aziel blessed him, but Issachar said nothing.

As the Phoenician was walking through the market-place early on the next day an aged black woman, whom he did not know, accosted him, saying that she had a message for his ear from the king Ithobal who was camped without the city and who desired to see the merchandise that he had brought with him from the coasts of Tyre. Now Metem had already sold all his wares at a great advantage; still, as he would not neglect this opportunity of trade, he purchased others from his fellow merchants, and loading two camels with them, set out for the camp of Ithobal, riding on a mule. By midday he had reached it. The camp was pitched near water in a pleasant grove of trees, and on one of these not far from the tent of Ithobal Metem noted that there hung the body of a black dwarf.

"Behold the fate of him who shoots at the buck and hits the doe. Well, I have always said that murder is a dangerous game, since blood calls out for blood," thought Metem as he rode towards the tent.

At its door stood king Ithobal looking very huge and sullen in the sunlight. Metem dismounted and prostrated himself obsequiously.

"May the King live for ever," he said, "the great King, the King to whom all the other kings of the earth are as the little gods to Baal, or the faint stars to the sun."

"Rise, and cease from flatteries," said Ithobal shortly; "I may be greater than the other kings, but at least you do not think it."

"If the king says so, so let it be," replied Metem calmly. "A woman yonder in the market-place told me that the king wished to trade for my merchandise. So I have brought the best of it; priceless goods that which much toil I have carried hither from Tyre," and he pointed to the two camels laden with the inferior articles which he had purchased, and began to read the number and description of the goods from his tablets.

"What value do you set upon the whole of them, merchant?" asked Ithobal.

"To the traders of the country so much, but to you, O King, so much only," and he named a sum twice that which he had paid in the city.

"So be it," assented Ithobal indifferently; "I do not haggle over wares. Though your price is large, presently my treasurer shall weigh you out the gold."

There was a moment's pause, then Metem said:--

"The trees in this camp of yours bear evil fruit, O King. If I might ask, why does that little black monkey hang yonder."

"Because he tried to do murder with his poisoned arrows," answered Ithobal sullenly.

"And failed? Well, it must comfort you to think that he did fail if he was of the number of your servants. It is strange now that some knave unknown attempted murder last night in the palace gardens, also with poisoned arrows. I say attempted, but as yet I cannot be sure that he did not succeed."

"What!" exclaimed Ithobal, "was----" and he stopped.

"No, King, prince Aziel was not hit; the Lady Elissa took that shaft through her hand, and lies between life and death. I am doctoring her, and had it not been for my skill she would now be stiff and black--as the rogue who shot the arrow."

"Save her," said Ithobal hoarsely, "and I will pay you a doctor's fee of a hundred ounces of pure gold. Oh! had I but known, the clumsy fool should not have died so easily."

Metem took out his tablets and made a note of the amount.

"Take comfort, King," he said, "I think that I shall earn the fee. But to speak truth, this matter looks somewhat ugly, and your name is mentioned in it. Also it is said that your cousin, the great man whom the prince Aziel slew, was charged to abduct a certain lady by your order."

"Then false tales are told in Zimboe, and not for the first time," answered Ithobal coldly. "Listen, merchant, I have a question to ask of you. Will the prince Aziel meet me in single combat with whatever weapons he may choose?"

"Doubtless, and--pardon me if I say it--slay you as he slew your cousin, for he is a fine swordsman, who has studied the art in Egypt, where it is understood, and your strength would not avail against him. But your question is already answered, for though the prince would be glad enough to fight you, Sakon will have none of it. Have you nothing else to ask me, King?"

Ithobal nodded and said:--

"Listen, merchant. I know your repute of old, that you love money and will do much to gain it, and that you are craftier than any hill-side jackal. Now, if you can do my will, you will have more wealth than ever you won in your life before."

"The offer sounds good in a poor man's ears, King, but it depends upon what is your will."

Ithobal went to the door of the tent, and commanded the sentries who stood without to suffer none to disturb him or draw near. Then he returned and said:--

"I will tell you, but beware that you do not betray my counsels in this or in any other matter, for I have sharp ears and a long arm. You know how things are between me and the lady Elissa and her father Sakon and the city which he governs. They stand thus: Unless within eight days she is given to me in marriage, I have sworn that I will make war upon Zimboe. Ay, and I will make it, for, filled with hate for the white man, already the great tribes are gathering to my banners in ten armies, each of them ten thousand strong. Once let them march beneath yonder walls, and before they leave it Zimboe, city of gold, shall be nothing but a heap of ruins, and a habitation of the dead. Such shall be my vengeance; but I seek love more than vengeance, for what will it avail me to butcher all that people of traders if--as well may chance in the accidents of war--I lose her whom I desire, whose beauty shall be my crown of crowns, and whose mind shall make me great indeed?

"Therefore, Metem, if may be, I would win her without war; let the war come afterwards, as come it must, for the time is ripe. And though she turned from me, this I should have done, had it not been for yonder prince Aziel, whom she met in a strange fashion, and straightway learned to love. Now the thing is more difficult. Nay, while the prince Aziel can take her to wife it is well-nigh impossible, since no threats of war or ruin can turn a woman's heart from him she seeks--to him she flies. Therefore, I ask you----"

"Your pardon, King," Metem broke in, "I see that you, like your rival, are so besotted with the beauty of this girl, that in all with which she has to do you have lost the rule of your own reason. I would save you perchance from saying words to which I do not wish to listen, and when you find a quiet mind again, that you may regret having spoken. If you were about to require of me that I should cause or be privy to the death of the prince Aziel, you would require it in vain; yes, even if you were willing to pay me gold in mountains, and gems in camel loads. With murder I will have nothing to do; moreover, the prince, your rival, is my friend and master, and I will not harm him. Further, I may tell you that after the adventure of last night none will be able to come near him to hurt a hair of his head, seeing that through daylight and through darkness he is guarded by two men."

"With a woman's body to set before him as a shield," said Ithobal bitterly. "But you speak too fast; I was not about to ask you to kill this man, or even to procure his death, because I know it would be useless, but rather that you should so contrive that he cannot take Elissa. How you contrive it I care nothing, so that she is not harmed. You may kidnap him, or stir up the city against him, as one destined to be the source of war, and cause him to be despatched back to the great sea, or bribe the priests of El to hide him away, or what you will, if only you separate him from this woman for ever. Say, merchant, are you willing to undertake the task, or must my good gold go elsewhere?"

Metem pondered awhile and answered:--

"I think that I will undertake it, King; that is, if we come to terms, though whether I shall succeed is another matter. I will undertake it not only because I seek to enrich myself, but because I and others who serve him think it is a very evil thing that this prince, Aziel, whose blood is the most royal in the whole world, without the consent of the great king of Israel, his grandfather, should wed the daughter of a Phoenician officer, however beautiful and loving she may be. Also I love yonder city, which I have known for forty years, and would not see it plunged in a bloody war and perhaps destroyed because a certain man desires to call a certain girl his sweetheart. And now if I succeed in this, what will you give me?"

Ithobal named a great sum.

"King," replied Metem, "you must double it, for that amount you speak of I shall be forced to spend in bribes. More; you must give me the gold now, before I leave your camp, or I will do nothing."

"That you may steal it--and do nothing," laughed Ithobal angrily.

"As you will, King. Such are my terms; if they do not please you, well, let me go. But if you accept them, I will sign a bond under which if within eight days I do not make it impossible for the prince Aziel to marry the lady Elissa, you may reclaim so much of the gold as I do not prove to you to have been spent upon your service, and no bond of Metem the Phoenician was ever yet dishonoured. No, on second thought I will learn wisdom from Issachar the Levite and put my hand to no writing which it would pain me that some should read. King, my sworn word must content you. Another thing, soon war may break out, or I may be forced to fly. Therefore, I demand of you a pass sealed with your seal that will enable me to ride with twenty men and all my goods and treasure, even through the midst of your armies. Moreover you shall swear the great oath to me that notice of this pass will be given to your generals and that it shall be respected to the letter. Do you consent to these terms?"

"I consent," said the king presently.

*****

That evening Metem returned to the city of Zimboe, but those who led his two camels little guessed that now they were laden, not with merchandise, but with treasure.