THE DAUGHTER OF DERKETO
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
A coppery sun climbed upward on his hill of cloud; the south-wind ceased, and the lake drowsed lazily in the morning sun. The Assyrian still reclined with his head upon the lap of Semiramis, for in the beginning she would not suffer him to tax his strength with speech. She urged that he rest, while she told her name and the story of her birth; and he, content, asked nothing more than to look and listen, while his heart grew hungry and his pulses sang to a tune of joy. So the maiden babbled on of gods and men, of the shepherd’s home with Simmas, her foster-father, and of her simple life with sheep that browsed upon the hills and the fishes swam in the waters of Ascalon.
Her mother, Derketo, had been a goddess whom the Syrians worshipped in her temple beside the lake, till she drew the fatal wrath of Dagon down, because of her beauty and her foolish vanities. She lured the hearts of mortals from their level paths, consuming them with mad desires which were barren and unfulfilled; playing with passion, yet drinking not its flame—a reckless sprite who mocked at hell, while she danced on a thread that stretched across its throat.
Then Dagon, troubled at her wickedness, brought forth from some far eastern land a warrior youth who sighed and sang before Derketo’s shrine. Slender was he and shapely, with deep blue eyes and locks that shone as a flame of golden red; so the goddess came out to him and was pleased because of the sweetness of his song. Through the long blue night he sang and whispered in her ear, till by his arts and a subtle tongue he wrought her fall, then straightway disappeared.
A babe was born, and Derketo, in her shame and grief, stole out by night upon the hills and left her child among the rocks to die; then, weeping, she crept into her temple, hiding behind its altar’s shadow from the sight of men. By day she slept; by night she crouched beside the water’s edge, to fling shrill curses at Dagon across the lake.
Then Dagon in wrath waxed terrible, and sent a lightning bolt which destroyed the goddess and her temple utterly, so that Syria knew her beauty and her wiles no more.
Now a farmer who dwelt in Ascalon was sorely vexed because of theft, yet never could he lay his hands upon the pilferer, albeit he watched together with his wife and sons. The goats’ milk left in crocks outside his door would disappear in the broad of day, and after a space his cheeses began to suffer likewise. Marveling, he set himself to watch again, and at dawn a flock of doves dropped down before his door. They pecked at his cheeses, or filled their beaks with milk, then winged their flight to a distant point on the hillside over against the lake. The farmer and his sons marked out the spot and journeyed thither, to find a babe that was sheltered among the stones—the same which Derketo left to perish, and now was nurtured by these sacred birds.1
The farmers bore her tenderly to the house of Simmas, chief warden of the royal flocks, a kindly man who reared her as his own; and they called her Shammuramat, which name, in the Syrian tongue, means Dove.
Thus the offspring of a goddess, and adopted child of doves and mortal man, grew swiftly to a strength and beauty of the gods themselves. From early childhood she loved the lake, where she sported among the waves till none might match her in speed or grace of stroke; yet, truly, born of Derketo, goddess of the fishes, what marvel, then? Again, as her mystic father hunted through far off eastern lands, so the girl soon turned to hunting through the hills of Syria, with a passion which made her bow and spear a wonder among the simple shepherd folk.
“And now,” said Semiramis, as she toyed with Menon’s hand, “and now am I a woman grown, with lovers who come in droves as the cattle come, yet daring not to voice the yearnings of their hearts. Great, stupid youths are they, the sons of farmers and tenders of our herds, who stare at me in tongue-tied wonderment; aye, like unto the yearling calves whose thoughts we may not fathom because of their foolishness.”
The Assyrian laughed and drew her down till her lips met his and clung; and she joined his merriment, in that he seemed so unakin to the yearlings of which she spoke. Then, presently, she thought to ask his name.
“Menon,” he answered simply, whereat she started, pushed his head from out her lap and edged away.
“Menon—thou!” she cried. “Ah, no, my lord! A jest! That man is but a devil’s leech who clingeth to the throat of Syria, taxing, taxing, till its very blood is sucked in tax! Thou—!” She paused to laugh. “The Governor is ugly, fat—and thou—”
Again she stopped, with suddenness, and blushed.
“Nay, harken,” said Menon, “of a truth I am the Governor; and it cometh to me that I would tax thy country further still—tax it till I snatch from thy foster-father, Simmas, his choicest store of all.”
“Eh—what!” she demanded, angered at his words. “My father—that kind old man? Shame! Shame, my lord!”
Menon pursed his lips and ridged his brow with his sternest frown.
“I fain would rob him as I say; yea, even thy sacred doves and the very gods themselves, of Syria’s Pearl—Shammuramat.”
The girl said naught, but gazed in silence out across the lake, while a smile played softly at the corners of her mouth. She was not ill pleased to be called the Pearl of Syria, albeit she herself had long been conscious of the pretty truth. Moreover, t’was most unseemly in a maid to gainsay a mighty Governor; and in her heart she could find no dread of this weighty tax on Syria’s birds and gods. Therefore she waited for his further speech, which came at length with earnestness:
“Now as to these taxes, concerning which I am called a devil’s leech, it grieveth me sorely to oppress a simple folk, and it causeth my soul’s unrest by night and day.”
Again the maiden laughed.
“Aye, truly,” she answered, spreading out her locks for the sun to dry; “I well can believe thy words, for never have I looked upon a youth so melancholy, or one on whom his sorrows ride with a tighter knee. Yet tell me, O Prince of Woe, what in truth may chance to be thy station and thy name?”
Menon spread his hands, though he could not help but smile at the maiden’s doubt of him.
“Nay, believe me,” he urged, “I speak the truth. I swear it on thy fish-god’s altar. I am indeed the Governor, sent hither at the King’s command, to do his bidding, not my will alone. King Ninus buildeth a city for himself on a far off river bank, a city which is like unto a huge, devouring monster, swallowing up the stores of men, the fruits of the earth, and the children of every land. This, then, is why I come to tax thine honest neighbors of their wealth.”
He told her of the city’s walls and of how they rose from out the waste of sand; of the temples, palaces, the towers and the soaring citadel. He told of millions toiling through the nights and days, and of an army which girt the walls around, while Semiramis sat listening, drinking in his words.
“Ah!” she breathed. “Ah, now I understand! And what is this city called?”
“Nineveh—the Opal of the East.”
Again Semiramis came close to Menon’s side, and, at his pleading, once more took his head into her lap.
“This monarch of thine,” said she, as she nodded thoughtfully, “is right. He is wise and strong. My people are fools to murmur against the justice of his tax. For listen! I, too, will some day build a city, more grand, more vast in its reach and splendour, aye, even than this Opal of the East. Its walls shall top thine highest towers—its gardens shall hang between the earth and sky. Ah, laugh if thou wilt, yet Schelah hath seen it all—as I have seen—as it rises on her kettle’s smoke.”
At Menon’s look of wonder, she told him that Schelah was a witch who dwelt in a cave among the hills, who wrought strange spells, told fortunes, and healed disease with her arts and herbs.
“A withered crone is she,” the maiden said, “ugly and of crooked limbs, whose very name the farmers fear; and yet she is not an evil witch, but kind and gentle to those who understand. Why, I fear her no more than—than—”
“Than me?” asked Menon, with a smile.
“Than thou,” she nodded happily, “and I fear thee none at all. Yet tell me more.”
He told her of the battles he had seen; of the siege of Zariaspa, where Ninus, baffled of desire, needs turn away till a mightier army could be raised, and engines devised to batter down the walls. He told her of other wars, long, fierce, triumphant in the end; and as he spoke Semiramis saw it all, even as she once had seen a dim and ghostly Babylon which rose from out old Schelah’s kettle-smoke.
She saw vast, rolling plains, where armies met with a rending crash and roar; where warriors, locked in a grip of rage, fought desperately and died; where chariots charged as against a cliff, to totter and overturn, and the sands ran red with blood. She heard the cries of men and the clang of blows, exultant shouts of victory and the shrieks of those who fled—the rumble of wheels and hoofs that shook the earth—the clamour of ranks that reeled through tossing clouds of dust. Her bosom heaved; her cheeks, her lips, grew crimson with the rush of blood; her dark eyes kindled, and she trembled as in a chill.
“Ishtar!” she cried, as she raised her head and clenched her outflung hands. “Oh, if I but once might sing a battle-song! To struggle—to fight—!”
Menon checked her with a rich, full-throated laugh that echoed to the temple’s dome.
“Fight?” he asked. “In the name of all the gods, fight whom?”
She gave no heed to his merry tone, for the spark had caught, the flames were lit, and the fuel needs must burn.
“Poof! I care not, so it be a foe—a foe who will stand and scorns to fly!” Again she raised her arms, her rich voice shrill in its pitch of feverish desire: “To drive a chariot and lash its steeds through hedges of swords and spears! To drink of the wine of war! To conquer and to reign—a queen! And see!” she cried, as she caught her flame-hued hair, “this will I cut away, that none may know me for a maid. Then, then wilt thou suffer me to follow as a youth who is in thy train. Speak, lord, I wait.”
Menon smiled and shook his head, for a maiden’s path, he told her, was not amidst the perils of the field; but she took his cheeks in both her palms and bent till her breath was mingled with his own.
“Nay, once,” she pleaded, in her haunting, liquid tone, “one little war—no more! Ah, Menon, sweet, thou will let me go?” Lower she bent and leaned upon his lips, while her strange eyes burned their passion into his, her fair arms clinging in a love caress. “Menon! Menon!”
He trembled, for his heart cried out aloud and longed to give this maid whatever she asked; and she held him closer still, murmuring into his ear as her mother, Derketo, might have whispered when she lured the steps of men from their level paths.
“Heed me,” she pleaded low, and brushed his cheek with the velvet of a softer curve, “didst thou not will to tax my father of the Pearl of Syria? What then? Wouldst leave me in thy home—alone—to yearn for a loved one far afield, to weep, to listen for his footstep through the weary night? Nay, Menon, that were cruelty, and thou art kind.”
A shadow settled on the Governor’s brow. He arose and paced the temple’s floor, his hands locked tight behind his back. Grim duty called his name, and it came to him that the scepter of Assyria was thrust between his heart and the woman for whom it beat alone.
“What troubleth thee, my lord?”
For a space he answered naught, but kept to his thoughtful pacing to and fro.
“Maiden,” he began at last, “there are matters of state which come to pass, and a woman may not understand, by reason of their strange complexities.”
The girl looked up, with a sparkle in her eye which warred with a sense of vague misgiving in her heart.
“Perchance, my lord, the tongue of a learned Governor is happily of that turn which maketh such matters simple, even to a woman’s foolish mind. I pray thee try.”
Menon laughed, then began to tell his trouble as best he might, though the task now seemed more weighty than the sealing of a truce; and rather far would he have faced Boabdul’s scimitar than the eyes of this red-haired girl who watched him, hanging on his utterance.
“King Ninus,” said he, “hath sent me messengers who on yesterday were come. They bear me a scroll wherein my master is pleased to laud my deeds with flatteries and praise. At his command have I taxed thy people till the very grass blades wilt, and thereby won the enmity of all the land; yet the King is glad, for because of me he receiveth vast stores for the building of his city. In reward”—here Menon faltered, turned away his eyes and looked upon the floor—”in reward he offereth me his daughter’s hand—Sozana—when the walls and palaces of Nineveh shall be.”
“Ah!” breathed Semiramis. “Ah! I see!” She crouched upon the temple steps, one knee clasped tight within her arms, her pink chin resting on it thoughtfully. “Go on, my lord.”
“This offer,” continued Menon, scowling as he spoke, “is a fruit of bitterness upon my tongue, for the maid is loved by my best of friends—Memetis—an Egyptian Prince whom Ninus holdeth hostage at his court lest his nation rise to—”
He stopped, for Semiramis had checked his speech with a cold command.
“Nay, let Memetis rest! What manner of maid may this Sozana chance to be?”
“She is dark and slight,” the Governor answered slowly, “of a trustful nature, gentle in her ways, and kind.” The girl beside him laughed, yet merriment was not its tone; and Menon blundered on: “As children we played together, she and I—a saucy little rogue of mirth and song—a child, for whom I’d cut away my hand rather than bring a pang of suffering.”
“So,” said Semiramis, in a whispered drawl, “so the Princess is fair to look upon. I did divine as much. Well? Well, my lord?”
“And now,” sighed Menon, “the King would cause this pretty child to stifle love and wed where she hath no will.”
“Not so,” declared Semiramis, with a snap of her firm white teeth. “Be warranted, my lord, the jade hath put him up to it. What! Hath she not seen thee? Hast thou not beguiled her with thy, craftful wiles? How should it, then, be otherwise?”
Again the lake-nymph laughed, ungently, and with a shrill, derisive ring.
“Nay!” said Menon. “Nay! She yearneth not for me, nor do I yearn for her. In secret is she betrothed unto Memetis whom she loveth utterly; and should I bow to the King’s desire, t’would bring a hurt to her whom I took to wife, and to him whose happiness I hold more dearly than mine own.”
Once more the Assyrian paused and gazed in trouble through the temple’s door. In the waters of the lake he seemed to see the faces of his monarch and his friends, the King, with a smile upon his bearded lips; Memetis, sad and silent in reproach, and sweet Sozana, wondering at a grief too deep for tears.
“Then why,” asked Semiramis, quivering as she spoke, “then why, in the name of Bel and Moloch, wouldst thou do this wicked thing?”
The Governor stood before her, cast in gloom, and answered sullenly:
“The offer of the King is the King’s command, and once, once only, may a subject thwart his will.”
“Ah!” breathed Semiramis once again. “Ah, I see! Moreover, I do perceive that Menon hath a mighty leaning to this maid of Nineveh, who is dark and slight, of a trustful nature, gentle in her ways, and kind. Nay, shake not thy head, deceitful one. Shammuramat is not a fool. What, then, remaineth for my lord to choose?”
Menon sighed, but answered naught, while she sat and watched him pacing in his deep unrest. Presently she spoke again, slowly, softly, yet the tone was cold:
“I have marked, my lord, that those of smallest mind demand the longest span of time in making up the same. The wise man acteth! His love and greed he weigheth not in the selfsame scale. What! Hath the mighty Governor still to choose?”
The Assyrian leaned against a pillar of the temple, gazed gloomily before him, and brooded on the mandate of the King. The warrior within him whispered at his ear, calling, pleading, as with a trumpet’s blast. Another voice there was, that told of a love of power—of the joy in ruling over weaker men—and Menon’s place was beside the King. They dragged him, these voices, as with a chain of bronze, yet his heart cried out Shammuramat! With her he could dwell in peace for all time, an outcast from his land, a wanderer, in want and poverty—a worshipper who died content in the glory of her smile. And yet—
“Is my lord still praying to his gods of guile, or doth he slumber because of weariness—and me?”
The troubled Governor did not note a certain purring in her tone, nor the gleam of her eye, while she crouched as the leopard crouches, noiseless, ready for its spring.
“By the great lord Asshur,” Menon muttered between his teeth, “my wits are tried and grievously.” He shook himself and turned with his winning smile. “Can the friend of the good witch Schelah lend aid to one who is vexed in spirit and in mind?”
“Yea!” cried Semiramis, springing to her feet in a gust of fury. “Yea!” Her eyes flamed hotly, and her fingers clenched till the nails bit deep into her palms. “Go, thief of kisses! Go, when thou hast scorched my country bare with tax! Go back to thy maid of Nineveh—this whining jade whose sire is but a savage and a fool! Yet tell her this—thou hast looked on the Pearl of Syria! Tell her—and she will understand!”
For an instant stood Semiramis, a queen of consuming rage and scorn; then she laughed—laughed hoarsely—in the mockery of mirth, sprang down the temple steps, and was gone.
Menon followed after, shouting, begging her return, as he sought her among the trees and tangled undergrowth.
“Shammuramat! Shammuramat!” he called aloud, and only the echoes of his yearning voice came back to taunt him. For a weary space he searched, yet his search was vain; and when hope had departed utterly, he turned him homeward, skirting the lake shore with a lagging step.
Then a girl crept out from the shadows among the trees and sat on the temple steps. She rested her arms upon her knees, her chin upon her arms, and watched till Menon’s drooping figure passed from sight.
Once more she cast her robe aside, tore off her sandals and flung them down; and then, in the wondrous beauty of her form unveiled, she stood in wrath before the fish-god Dagon, her eyes aflame, her red hair tumbling in disorder on her neck.
“What!” she stormed. “Did I—Shammuramat—drag out this liar from the lake, to save him for a minx at Nineveh?”
She snapped her fingers scornfully and turned upon her heel; then she dived for her string of pearls.