THE GOVERNOR OF SYRIA
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
King Ninus, grandson of the mighty Shalmaneser, mounted his throne in youth, a throne which ruled a kingdom run to seed through the slothful reign of Shamashi-Ramân; yet as his grandsire’s heart had beat for war alone, so beat the heart of Ninus, resting not till the glory of Assyria flamed forth again.
From the city of Kalah, crumbling in decay, he began his little conquests, conquering his neighbors and joining their strength to his, making them friends and allies rather than slaves who bowed beneath a yoke of might. He moulded their uncouth valor into ordered rule, exchanging their clumsy weapons for his better tools of war, till, presently, an army raised its head from out the mud of ignorance. A conquered people, so long as they paid him tribute and kept their covenants, were left in peace, their gods untroubled, their temples sacred to their own desires; but should they revolt, then Ninus and his grim, unpitying host returned, to leave their cities smouldering heaps upon the plain, the heads of their chiefs set up on poles by way of warning to all who entertained a similar unrest.
And thus, like ever widening circles in a pool, the Assyrian Empire grew apace, until at length its confines stretched away, even to the shores of the Sea of the Setting Sun. Beneath the rule of Ninus bowed Media and Armenia, the roving, battle-loving Khatti, Tyre, Sidon, Edom and Philistia. Proud Babylon was once more wedded to Assyria, albeit she ever scratched and bit in the manner of fractious and unwilling wives. Damascus fell, a feat which even Shalmaneser failed to compass, and the peaceful fields of Syria were overrun, their cattle eaten by the hungry conquerors. The dwellers on the shores of the Black and Caspian seas were subject to the sway of Ninus, and Egypt paid him endless tribute in precious metals and shields and swords of bronze.
And yet two kingdoms lay as stumbling blocks in the path of Assyria’s power. The one was Bactria, a land whose armies, beaten in the field, took refuge behind the massive walls of Zariaspa, defying siege for three long years, their turrets lined with well-fed, jeering men-at-arms.
The other unconquered kingdom was Arabia, ruled by a wily Prince, by the name Boabdul Ben Hutt, who chose a saddle for his throne, his sceptre a loose-sheathed scimitar. This country abounded in a breed of swiftest steeds which wrought King Ninus to the verge of mad desire; yet the prize was beyond his grasp, like the fruit of a palm whose trunk he could neither fell nor climb. And more; its inner kernel was protected by a circling rind of desertland, far deadlier than a force of a million warriors. Moreover this kingdom stood in constant menace to the plans of Ninus, and so soon as an adjacent country was subdued and the armies marched to further wars, a cloud of dusky riders would descend in a swirling rush of sand, to obliterate the tracks of Assyria’s patient toil.
Report came now to Ninus as he sat upon his tower, and vexed him till he fain would crucify the messengers of evil tidings. The horsemen of Boabdul were troubling Syria with the points of spears, devouring the fattest flocks and bearing off rich spoils which the King desired in the building of his city. For an hour King Ninus combed his beard in thought, then sent for Menon and spread before him a feast of fruits and wine.
“Menon,” spoke the King, when the feast was done, “to-morrow shalt thou journey down into Arabia and seal a covenant with our worthy foe, Prince Boabdul Ben Hutt.”
Menon stared and set his goblet on the board.
“A covenant?” he asked in wonder, for he feared lest he had not heard aright.
“Aye, a covenant of peace,” King Ninus nodded gravely; “for, heed thee, fools alone make war upon the birds of flight, while a wise man feedeth them from his store of grain, in that they fatten against a time of need.” Menon smiled, and the King spoke on: “Go thou, then, unto Arabia, seek out Boabdul and bear him gifts which I now make ready. Offer them together with the love and fellowship of Assyria’s lord, and call him brother in my name. Seal, thou, a covenant whose bonds provide that we trespass not upon one another’s lands; that in all new conquests, wherein he lendeth aid, a half of the spoils thereof shall be his part. In turn, Arabia may call upon the arm of Ninus for the smiting of her enemies, and the lands subdued shall be divided in two equal shares. Accede to such demands of the noble Prince as wisdom and justice may advocate, yet upon one point hold fast as a buck-hound’s grip, though the treaty come to grief because of it.”
“And that?” asked Menon, still marvelling at the master’s tone.
“Stallions!” cried the King, as he struck the table with his hairy fist. “These must I have, to add to the glory of my stud, to draw my chariots and to fill the stalls of my stables here at Nineveh. Look to it, Menon, three thousand steeds of the noblest stock will Boabdul send each year; and for the which he may ask his price in maidens or other merchandise. The steeds, my friend, the godly steeds of Barbary!”
For a space the King and his faithful general spoke thoughtfully of matters pertaining to the truce, then Menon rose to take his leave; but Ninus detained him further.
“When the covenant shall be sealed,” said he, “send messengers with the terms thereof to my allies in the South; likewise dispatch a trusty courier to me, then journey into Syria. In Syria thou wilt wait upon its Governor, one Surbat by name, a drowsy man who ruleth with the wisdom of a sheep. Send me his head; and when he, thus, shall be removed from office, rule thou in his stead—yet wisely and with wakefulness.”
Menon’s cheeks grew red with pride at the honours which his master was about to heap upon him, and he would have fallen to his knees in gratitude, but the King restrained him.
“Nay, listen,” said he, “the hills of Syria are fat with the fat of plenty, their vast tribes rich in cattle and in sheep, while Ninus hath grievous need of food in the building of his city. Pinch them with tax, my son, till their veins run dry, yet spare their skins that they puff again for a later need. I, myself, will send a messenger unto Surbat, advising him of my will in the change of rule, albeit as to the smiting of his neck, I will leave it till thou comest on him suddenly.”
Once more Menon sought to sink upon his knee, but Ninus took his hands and raised him, saying, with a smile:
“Nay, spare thy thanks till the lion’s hide is dried; for, remember, I send thee down to Syria for Surbat’s head. Rule boldly, but with craft, lest perchance I may some day send for still another head. And now, farewell.”
Menon journeyed down the Tigris in a barge whose sweeps were manned by swart Phoenicians; and beside the guard accompanying him, there were certain slaves who bore provisions and the royal gifts for Arabia’s Prince. By day and night they travelled swiftly till they came to the town of Kutha, where they crossed by land to the Euphrates and embarked in another boat. Thence they floated for many days on the current of this muddy stream, and rested at last by Burwar, a league below the site where Babylon, the Queen of Cities, would some day rise. Here they dispatched an Arab messenger unto Boabdul Ben Hutt, and sat down to wait the pleasure of the Prince and an escort through the desertlands.
At length the escort came, a band of turbaned savages who stole like ghosts across the sands on the backs of lurching camels; whose weapons and trappings gave no sound; whose visages were hardened to the breath of heated winds and the sting of burning dust. Their Sheik bade Menon welcome in his master’s name, and strapped the gifts of Ninus on a vicious lead-beast’s hump. He mounted the leader and seven of his men-at-arms, but the others, together with the slaves and servants, he commanded to remain behind.
There were those of Menon’s guard who sat uneasy in their seats, because of the strangeness in the gait of these awsome beasts; and one, when his camel floundered from its knees, clutched wildly at nothing and pitched headlong to the earth, to arise from the dust with curses, amid the laughter of the Bedouins.
Now it is not good to mock at a Babylonian in distress, so he, one Babus, nursed a certain soreness of his pride which was like to bring the cause of Menon into bitter stress, yet the time was not yet come.
For the space of eleven days the cavalcade fared westward through the trackless wastes, the sky a brazen lake of fire, the plains a tawny, dizzy sea that seemed to heave with endless waves of sand. In the hours of noon they rested long beneath the shade of canopies, and slept; then took up their flight again, to shiver through the cool of night when a huge moon leapt with wondrous suddenness from beneath the world and raced away along his curving, star-lit path. And thus they journeyed till the dawn of the twelfth red day, when Menon spied the fringe of a green oasis as it rose from the desert’s rim. Like a cool, sweet dewdrop it seemed to lie in the core of a yellow leaf, and after a weary ride at quickened pace the travellers came upon the outposts of Boabdul’s camp.
Here the Assyrians were conducted into tents of skins, that of Menon being sumptuous in appointment; it was deep, commodious, and provided with silent slaves to wait upon the chieftain’s needs. One servant bore a cooling draught of wine, while another prepared a bath—a tub devised of a camel’s hide supported on stakes which were driven in the earth. The juice of the grape was sweet to Menon’s swollen tongue, but the bath was like unto the spirit of a loved one who took him in her arms and kissed away his weariness. In the water he lingered listlessly, at rest, at peace, while his thirsty pores drank in the precious moisture; then a black attendant clothed him in a filmy robe, and a rich repast was spread. There were dates and figs, with cakes of pounded grain; there was wine in jeweled cups, and melons chilled in the depths of Boabdul’s wells. The Assyrian ate and was satisfied, then sank upon a couch, to slumber dreamlessly throughout the day, throughout the night, till at dawn the tingling blood ran knocking at his heart with the message that he lived again.
When, once more he had eaten and was conducted from his tent, Menon found the camp astir with the life and bustle of moving warriors, of shifting sentinels, and horsemen who led their steeds to water and provided feed. Through groves of palms he could see a vast array of tents which stretched away to the uttermost edges of the green oasis, while on the plains beyond white clouds of riders wheeled and darted to and fro. The great red sun arose, and with its coming Menon and his men-at-arms were led before Arabia’s Prince.
Boabdul Ben Hutt stood waiting in the opening of his royal tent, a youth of lordly mien, with a proud, disdainful beauty stamped upon his beardless face. About his head was wound the folds of a milk-white turban whose tall aigret was caught in the clasp of a splendid emerald. His robe was wrought with precious gems and threads of gold, while a jeweled scimitar swung from his studded belt.
In Assyria’s tongue he greeted Menon and his followers, bidding them welcome to his couch and board, for the Prince was schooled in the speech of many lands. He questioned them as to the health of the King, their master, and sought to know if the messengers had rested from their tedious march; and then, when the rind of courtesy was pealed away, Boabdul demanded that the meat of Assyria’s quest be laid upon the palate of his understanding.
So Menon spoke as Ninus had desired, calmly, craftily, setting forth the marked advantage of a union with his lord. He touched with truth upon Assyria’s wants, yet pointed out Arabia’s crying needs. He laid the terms of treaty before the Prince till the scales of justice balanced to a grain of sand; then, he called Boabdul brother in his monarch’s name and asked for stallions from the plains of Barbary.
The Arab listened in the patience of his race, albeit a frown of anger now rode upon his brow, while his fingers fluttered about the hilt of his keen-edged scimitar. When Menon ceased to speak Boabdul spurned the gifts of Ninus with his foot and loosed the bridle of his fiery tongue.
“What!” he stormed. “Is Arabia’s Prince an owl? Shall he blink at the glory of Assyria’s sun, while foxes pluck out feathers from his tail? My stallions! No! Go back to thy master who would pillage where he conquereth not, and lead him a bridled jackal for his stud. Go! Say that Boabdul knoweth not a brother of his name, and bear him as my gift thy two palms heaped with dust!”
A close-packed ring of Bedouins girt the messengers round about, and those who understood passed whispered words to their fellow warriors, till soon a threatening murmur rose, and many a scimitar itched to leave its sheath.
Now Babus, the Babylonian—he whose pride was sore because of his fall from the camel’s back—spoke out unbidden and flung a taunt in the teeth of the angry Prince, whereat an Arab impaled the offender on his lance, so that Babus writhed upon the earth, and died. The Assyrian guard would have drawn their swords to avenge the stroke, and of a certainty would have lost their lives and marred their master’s truce, but Menon wheeled upon them with a word of sharp command.
“Peace!” he cried. “The mouth of a braying ass is closed with the dust which wise Boabdul sendeth as a gift to Ninus.” He paused, to set a chain of gold about the neck of the Arab who had wrought the deed, then turned to the Prince with palms held downward. “See, my lord,” he smiled, “my hands are empty now. What, then, shall I bear to Ninus who waiteth at Nineveh for a seal of truce?”
“The jackal!” flashed Boabdul. “Bear him that!”
“Nay,” spoke Menon, pointing to the corpse of Babus at his feet, “thy second gift will I also put to use in devouring the flesh of this fallen fool, whom my lord will forget, aye, even as a generous Prince forgeteth wrath.”
The Bedouins nodded among themselves and smiled, for they loved the turn of a crafty tongue, yet the Prince ceased not to scowl.
“And why,” he asked, “if Ninus would call me brother of his heart, doth Ninus not come in person to my tents, or seek a council on some middle ground?”
“Because,” replied the messenger, “he buildeth a city on the Tigus river-bank; a city so vast that none save he alone may direct the rearing of its walls and palaces.”
“Oho!” the Arab scoffed. “So the master thatcheth huts, and sendeth a hired servant where he dare not risk the peril of his neck.”
Menon flushed, but checked a hot retort upon his lips, and held the eyes of Prince Boabdul in a level gaze.
“Aye, truly,” he answered, with a slow, unangered speech, “I am but an humble servant of my King; and yet I lead his hosts to battle, even as thou, my lord, lead those of thine honored father, whom I learn, with sorrow, is too infirm by reason of his years to bear the stress of war.”
Again the Bedouins murmured among themselves, but now in approval of the Assyrian’s words, yet Boabdul checked them with a frowning glance, and their tongues were stilled.
Of a truth the Prince was pleased in secret at the covenant which Ninus offered, yet would not seem too eager of his own desires. Therefore he feigned a marked disfavor to the plan, in hope that the treaty might lean more lightly on the shoulders of Arabia.
“And this master of thine,” he asked, with a dash of scorn, “is he then so high in power that the world must kneel before his kingly nod? Is he mightier than I, Boabdul Ben Hutt, who sweepeth the land with sword and flame? who ruleth from the desert to the lip of the western sea and balanceth a kingdom on the edge of his whetted scimitar? Speak, servant of thy King! Would Ninus face me, man to man, and still be conqueror?”
“As to that,” smiled Menon, openly, “I may not say. Long have I known my master as a father and a friend, yet remember not that he boasted of his deeds.”
Now the words of Menon were the words of bald untruth, for Ninus was a very prince of braggarts, causing a record of his feats of arms to be graven on mighty tablets, the which were designed for the wondering eyes of men who should follow after him. But Menon was unafraid, and the sting of his calm reproof was as a spur in the flanks of the Arab’s rage.
“I would to my gods,” he cried, “that this builder of huts were here at hand, in that I prove a weapon on his teeth!”
“Alas!” sighed Menon, “he is far away at Nineveh, where he trusteth some day to receive Boabdul as his honoured guest.”
“And thou,” the Arab sneered; while he trembled with fury because of the other’s unruffled mien, “thou who bearest the terms of this foolish truce and shieldeth thy master’s insolence, wilt thou dare face me, afoot or astride a steed?”
“Aye,” said Menon, as he took Boabdul’s measure thoughtfully; “if thereby our treaty may be sealed—with all my heart.”
“Come!” cried the Arab fiercely. “Come cross thy blade with mine; and if I fall, the treaty shall be made in accord with the covenants set forth. If not, a second council shall be held, whereat thy King shall sue for peace upon his knees.”
Beneath the shade of date-palms a circle of warriors was formed, and in its centre the two prepared to battle for the terms of truce. Their robes were laid aside lest the folds become entangled with their legs, and they stood forth naked except for waist cloths girt about their loins. The Arab was lean and wiry to the litheness of a cat, with corded thews that lay in knots upon his dusky skin. The Assyrian’s flesh, though pale with the tint of a northern clime, was firm and hard, its muscles rippling smoothly with the movement of his limbs. He was taller and of longer reach, well schooled in the arts of war, and possessed of a lynx-eyed watchfulness as a match to the speed of his nimbler foe.
Boabdul wielded his curving scimitar, which was weighted at its point, and held a tiny target upon his arm in easy grace, while Menon was armed with a shield of bronze and a heavy two-edged sword, the gifts of Memetis, an Egyptian prince held hostage at the court of Ninus.
For a moment the two stood motionless, each striving to note a weakness in the other’s guard, each ready for thrust or parry should an opening chance; then the Arab crouched and began to move in circles round and round. Menon, making a pivot of his heel, turned slowly with his hawk-like adversary, presenting a steady front to every point of menace or attack, and daring the Arab with his smiling eyes. Of a sudden Boabdul feinted with an under-thrust, recovered, and lashed out wickedly at Menon’s head; yet the scimitar only rasped along the edge of a waiting sword, and the Arab bounded back beyond the danger line. Again and again he sought an opening, and was met by a steady, cool defense, while the watching Bedouins and Assyrian men-at-arms cheered lustily for their champions.
Stung by repeated failure, Boabdul’s blood ran hot within his veins, and the battle waxed in fierceness and in speed. As the leopard springs, so the Arab darted in and out, his scimitar a wheel of light, a weapon in every spoke, that now rang sharply on a shield of bronze or gritted against a sword; the while Prince Menon fixed his gaze on the Arab’s eyes and waited a whisper from his gods.
In circles they stamped the earth, amid the din of hoarse, wild cries of men who lusted for a sight of blood; and then a shout went up, for a crimson stream ran trickling down the Assyrian’s thigh. The crafty Boabdul, too, had seen, and he bounded to a fresh attack, but Menon caught the blow on his brazen shield and turned the stroke aside; then swiftly, and with all his strength he smote the foeman’s target with the flat of his heavy sword. His gods had whispered, for the Arab’s arm hung numbed and useless at his side.
And now it was Menon’s turn to forsake the waiting game and push his foeman to the wall. The fresher of the two, because of his calm defense, he pressed upon the Prince without a feather-weight of mercy, nor gave him pause. In vain Boabdul fought with all his skill to regain an aggressor’s vantage ground, yet could not, for his blade was now his shield, while Menon warded blows with either arm. Still the battle was not yet won. The Arab strove by a score of cunning tricks to lure his enemy into faulty guard or a weakness of attack. He even sought with taunts and mockery to tilt the even temper of his foe; but Menon pressed him closer still and laughed—which troubled Boabdul grievously. Once the wily Arab flung himself upon the earth and slashed at the other’s legs, but Menon leaped and the stroke passed harmlessly beneath, while the Prince regained his feet and moved backward on the run.
They closed again for a final test of strength and artifice, twisting, thrusting, showering blows that were turned aside or evaded by a shifting foot, each panting in his toil, each weary but undismayed; then, of a sudden, Menon locked his sword in the curve of the Arab’s scimitar, and, grunting, heaved it from Boabdul’s grasp. The Prince, in an effort to elude the snare, reeled backward, tripped, and rolled upon the earth. In a flash the Assyrian sprang upon him and pressed his point beneath the dusky chin.
With screams of rage the circling Arabs lowered their spears to swoop upon the victor and save the vanquished if they might, but Menon flung his shield arm up in warning.
“Back!” he cried, “or by the crown of Ishtar will I slit his throat!”
The sons of the desert halted, as a steed is curbed, each poised for a savage thrust, each waiting in awesome dread for a thread of life to snap, while Boabdul Ben Hutt gazed upward into Menon’s eyes, though the brand of fear burned not upon his cheek.
“Strike, dog!” he groaned, in the shame and anguish of defeat; but Menon tossed his sword away and stretched forth his hands that the fallen one might rise.
In silence stared the Bedouins; in silence Boabdul rose and looked in puzzled wonder on his conqueror.
“Assyrian,” he asked at length, “why now is thy blade unstained, when a twist of fortune gave me over into thy hand?”
“My lord,” spoke Menon solemnly, and yet with a certain twinkling of the eye, “I seek to seal a covenant with Arabia’s Prince; not with Boabdul dead.”
The Arabian had looked on death, and knew that the wine of life was sweet to him; so anger departed utterly, and humor seized him till he laughed aloud.
“Now by my father’s beard,” he cried, as he caught the Assyrian’s hands in his and pressed them against his breast, “if Ninus keepeth faith as he chooseth messengers, right gladly will I call him Brother of my Soul!”
Then a mighty cheer arose, whose echoes rolled far out across the plains—a cheer for Ninus, lord of all Assyria—and another, louder, longer still, for the lion-hearted messenger. It had come upon the Arabs that Menon not once had sought to strike a fatal blow, but had stood before the desert’s fiercest scimitar, undaunted, staking all upon his strength, and had spared where he might have slain.
They led him unto Boabdul’s tent, where the Prince’s aged leech administered to his wound. They bathed and anointed him lest he suffer hurt because of his heated blood, and clothed him in raiment from Boabdul’s royal chests.
The treaty was duly sealed, to stand between two kingdoms through the march of years; and neither monarch once broke its covenants, albeit the links thereof were oft’ times strained by jealousies and the wild unrest of evil men.
When the terms of peace were closed to the smallest point, then Menon and his followers abode with the Prince for the space of seven days, wherein the hours of light were passed in hunting and in sports of arms, while the nights were given o’er to feasts and revelry. The guests were regaled at a kingly board, where wine cups circled till the thirsts of men could ask no more, their senses steeped in the charms of music and of maidens who danced unveiled before their eyes.
In the hour of parting Boabdul took the Assyrian to his heart and bade him think on Araby as a tent-flap ever held aside; and more, he made the gift of a noble steed from the plains of Barbary, a brother stallion to the one which he himself bestrode. With the steed went an Indian slave whom the Prince called Huzim, a giant from the Indus, with shoulders of mighty girth and whose bow no arm save his alone could draw.
So Menem, in sadness, parted from his host and journeyed into Syria, where he came upon Surbat, the drowsy Governor thereof. This man he removed from office and sent the head of him to Nineveh, taking council with the gods of craft that he save his own.
Then he rode upon the back of Syria, as a mahout drives a fractious elephant, goading with a goad of tax, till the hills resounded with its echoed trumpetings.