A PRAYER TO DAGON
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
As the young Assyrian sank, the maid smiled cunningly and edged away, fearing to be snared in a trap of her own device; yet when the moments melted one by one, her merriment gave place to fear. Full well she knew the space a swimmer might remain beneath the waves, and when at last four tiny bubbles rose, she took one long, deep breath, and dived.
Downward her course was laid in a slanting line, down to the very lake-bed, where the rocks were coated with a slimy muck, and tall grey weeds swayed gently to and fro. She worked in circles among the sharp-edged, slippery stones, groping with hands and feet where shadows closed the mouths of the darker pools; and at last she touched his hand. She strove to seize it, but her breath was well-nigh spent, and with a spring she shot toward the air.
A moment’s rest and again she dived, now certain of the spot whereon he lay. She reached him, paused an instant while her fingers sought a clutching point and closed upon his belt. She raised his weight, then bent her knees to lend a springing start, and began a battle for the stranger’s life.
Slowly, too slowly, was the journey made, for the body in its water-laden robes was dragging heavily, while the swimmer, with only one free arm, was hampered in her toil. But still she rose, though her lungs were like to burst, and the sinews across her chest were taut with pain. Up, still up, till youth and will could bear the double tax no more. She had ceased to move. She was sinking now, and of a sudden loosed her hold and raced for life—alone. High up she shot, till her slim waist cleared the water line. Another long, glad breath, and she sank again ere the body might once more settle among the weeds; and now she was beneath it, swimming cautiously, lest her burden slip.
How far it seemed to that wavy blur of light above, and how he weighed her down! How the lagging moments crawled, while each was a hope that slid away as the waters swept beneath her arms! His trailing hands were checking speed, and his robe was torn and entangled with her feet; yet across her shoulder hung his head, his cheek pressed close against her own.
By Ishtar, she would save him now, or rest beside him on his couch of weeds!
At last! A prayer of thankfulness to Dagon whistled across her lips with the first sweet rush of imprisoned breath; then, grasping the Assyrian’s locks, she turned upon her back and swam to the temple’s marble steps.
Once she had seen her foster-father bring back the life of a shepherd boy whose spark was well-nigh quenched in a swollen mountain stream; and so she wrought with Menon, first turning him upon his face and by her weight expelling the water from his lungs; then she chafed his pulses, beat with her fists upon his body, and moved his arms with a rhythmic motion to and fro. This she did and more, for, womanlike, when hope had oozed away, she took him on the cradle of her breast and sought to coax him back to life by soothing, childish words.
“Live! Live!” she breathed. “How young thou art to die! And I—a fool!—a fool!—to cause thee ill! Come back, sweet boy, and I will give the kiss! Aye, an hundred if thou wilt—but come!”
She wound her arms about him and looked into his upturned face. How beautiful he was, but oh, how still! How deep were his eyes which gazed into her own, but saw not her tears of pity and of pain! Some noble was he, perchance, in the train of Menon, the mighty Governor, who would doubtless sell her into slavery because of her wicked deed. But why should a youth do foolish things? Why had he dared the waters of her lake where fish alone or the child of fishes swim? Must a life so young, so precious, pay the price of folly? The folly of a kiss! Ah, he might have it now, though his lips were cold, unconscious, beneath the pressure of her own.
Again and again the blazing head was bowed, while the color raced from cheek to throat, and the lake-nymph’s blood awoke—awoke with a flame that would one day boil the caldron of Assyria, when the froth was stirred by a spoon of passionate unrest—a flame that would parch a thousand lands and drive their hordes to madness in a quenchless lust for war.
With the strength of despair the maiden lifted Menon’s body, dragged it up the temple steps and laid it at the foot of Dagon’s altar; then on her knees beside it she raised her arms and prayed, in a woman’s passion-born desire.
“See, Dagon,” she cried aloud, “see what the spirits of thy lake hold prisoner! See how still he lieth—he who was warm and filled with the breath of youth! An offering? No, no, sweet god, ’tis not an offering at thy daughter’s hands. The fruits, the garlands, and the grain are thine; the fattest kids and the first of the springtime ewes, but he is mine! List thee, mighty one! Why lookest thou across the lake in silence, unmoved, and heeding not my cry? Do I not bring thee dates and flowers, the goat’s milk and the buds from the tallest palms? No boon have I asked of thee, yet grant it now! Ah, pity, pity, and give him back to me!”
The suppliant bowed her head and waited, but the fish-god gave no sign. High up he towered, a hideous effigy in rough-hewn stone, with human face and hands, with the scaly body of a fish, while below his human feet were seen, distorted, half concealed in heaps of withered blossoms borne in offering by his shepherd worshippers. Behind him lay a carven plow, in emblem of the tiller’s art, a sickle, a herder’s crook, and vessels of wine from the vineyard’s choicest juice.
Long moments passed. The lake-nymph’s eyes were shifted from Dagon’s visage to the stranger at her side. His body lay in an ugly, helpless sprawl, his arms outstretched, his dark eyes fixed on nothingness, as vacant as the idol’s own. Once more the maiden turned to the god who seemed to mock her with his icy calm, whose stony ears were closed to the voice of prayer. She waited, and childish reverence melted as a mist dissolves, and fury rent her heart. She sprang to her feet and beat upon the effigy with doubled fists, her eyes ablaze, her loose hair whipping at her naked breast.
“Awake! Awake! Art sleeping, Dagon, that thou heedest not? Awake, I say! ’Tis I who call—Shammuramat!1 Am I, too, not a child of gods, whom the good witch Schelah sayeth will one day rule the world? Heed, or I tear thy temple down and set a Moloch in thy stead! Awake, thou fool! Awake!”
The shrill voice ceased. The pale girl listened with a chill of terror till the echoes died in the temple’s dome. Once more she fell upon her knees, and though her rage still stormed within her heart she softened her speech, as in after years she won by flattery where anger failed to lash obedience to her will.
“Forgive, dear Dagon,” she whispered, as she clasped his feet, “my tongue is the tongue of Derketo, my mother, whom thou didst curse with a just unhappiness. Yet listen! In error didst thou cause this youth to sink in the waters of thy lake, for he, too, loveth thee, with a love as great as mine. Give me his life, divine one, and in payment will I steal rich wine from my father’s oldest skins—the palm-wine, Dagon, which is sweet and strong. Also, my goat is thine. I will slay it here in sacrifice and lay its heart in the hollow of thy hand.”
She paused in thought profound. The bribe was large, yet the scales of barter needed still another weight; and well she knew the gods demand in sacrifice the parting with gifts which cause the keenest pangs. Of all her treasures two were held most dear, her dog and a string of pearls; and now, as she looked into Menon’s sightless eyes, her treasures seemed to shrink in worth. Yet ere she squandered all upon an altar stone, the voice of wisdom whispered at her ear and caused her to hide a smile.
“Hear me, Dagon,” she murmured, meekly, “thou knowest my good dog Habal that on rest-days cometh to thy temple’s door? Him, too, might I give in offering to turn thy heart, yet the deed were folly and to thee unjust; for doth he not watch my father’s flocks, with a faithful eye upon the lambs which are slain for thee alone? Were Habal dead, who then might save thy lambs from the beasts of prey? Nay, Habal’s teeth can serve thee unto better ends than Habal’s blood.”
She stole a glance at Dagon, and, finding his features placid in content, became emboldened to seal her bargain with a master-stroke. In a corner of the temple lay her robe of fine spun wool, discarded for her morning bath; and now from beneath its folds she brought her necklace, holding it up for the greedy god to see.
“Look! Look, sweet god,” she cried. “This I offer thee—a treasure given by a great Armenian prince. Soften thy heart and I cast it into the deepest waters of thy lake, where none may find it and dispoil thee of my gift.”
True, Semiramis herself might dive and recover it at will, albeit she hoped a point so trifling might escape the god. Yet, lest the thought occur to him, she hastened on:
“Knowest thou not the value of such pearls? With a single bead thou couldst buy an hundred Habals for thine altar’s needs. Think, then, what all would mean—they are twice a score—and I give them for the life of this one poor youth, whom me-thinks is of common blood and lowly born. Heed, wise one, and hasten, lest wisdom tempt me and I keep my pearls.”
A shaft of sunlight filtered through the thick leaved palms, wavered, and crawled across the temple’s floor; for an instant it rested on a tangle of blazing hair, then slowly climbed the fish-god’s scaly side. As the maiden watched, with parted lips, with bosom fluttering to a quickened pulse, the flame of sunlight flickered and went out. Yet at her choking cry, it leaped to life again, to splash the face of Dagon with a leering glow of happiness—and Menon groaned and stirred.
While one might count a score, the girl leaned, limp and nerveless, on Dagon’s altar stone; then she cast aside the blistered cat’s paw of divine appeal and set in its place a swift, more vigorous god of force. With a zeal of hope she fell upon the body of her charge in all the strength her wild, free life had built, till Menon’s eyelids fluttered and a frown of half unconscious protest ridged his brow. In the twilight of understanding, he fancied himself an ill used prisoner in the hands of enemies who mauled him from neck to heel; and when with returning life came an agony of water-laden lungs that labored to be free, he turned on his side and muttered curses, deep, fervent, touched by the fires of poesy.
It was then, then only, that the toil of Semiramis gave place to indolence. She rested her chin upon her knees and listened to the music of his oaths—music far sweeter than the liquid notes of shepherd’s flutes, or the echoes of sheep bells tinkling through the dusk. A seed of love had broken from its strange, unharrowed soil, and the bud had opened to look upon its god.
With a sigh of peace she rose and clothed herself in the robe of fine spun wool, clasped tight her girdle and strapped the sandal thongs about her feet; then she rested Menon’s head upon her lap and forced between his teeth the rim of a wine cup of which she recklessly deprived great Dagon’s shrine.
“Dagon and I,” she murmured, with an impish smile, “have compassed much; yet Dagon alone, without the measure of my aid—”
She paused, for a young cloud slid across the sun, flinging a shadow on the temple floor, a shadow which crept and crept till the fish-god’s visage darkened with its gloom; then Semiramis remembered, rose, and cast her pearls far out into the lake.
Once more she sat beside her charge, chafing his temples with a patient, lingering caress. Long, long she watched, her fancy looming lace-work webs of fate, while her heart marked joyfully his battle with reluctant life; till, presently, his breath flowed gently and the sweat of pain was dried upon his brow.
Menon’s glance met hers, and a flush of shame grew hot upon his cheek—the shame of defeat to him, a war-tried soldier, at the hands of a shepherd girl. Yet in her smile a man might forget defeat—forget and rejoice—forget all else save the smile and the maid who smiled.
His color spread, yet the blood-warmed tint now told no more of the sting of an humbled pride. He strove to raise his arms, but they seemed as weights too heavy for his strength, and sank beside him weakly. His thews were slack; he lay as helpless as an unweaned babe, yet the victor’s eyes were laughing down into his own, and were kind.
“The kiss!” sighed Menon, and the maiden bent and gave her soul into the keeping of his lips.