THE EAGLET NURSED BY DOVES
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
In troublous times the government of Syria was not a game at which a child might play; and, albeit Menon dwelt with his wife at Azapah, he needs must circle round about through many a restless tribe. From Nineveh came an endless call for grain wherewith to feed the multitudes of labourers, for oxen, asses, and the water buffalo, whose strength was now employed in the drawing of heavy loads. Train on train of lowing, braying beasts were driven from out the land; and so soon as their tails had ceased to switch in Syria, a cry went up for more. Thus the Syrians whispered amongst themselves, as others muttered far away at Nineveh; and soon the whisper swelled, till each man spoke his thoughts aloud, and thought was bitter against the Governor.
So Menon journeyed forth and back again, chiding, soothing, punishing. His hand was heavy when the rod was lifted of necessity; and when it fell, the back of the smitten wore a mark. Throughout he was honest, just, and unafraid in all things save one alone—Semiramis. He dare not suffer her to share the perils of the road, nor did he desire that tidings should leak abroad concerning his wedded state; for of all swift messengers, both of earth and air, not one keeps pace with the babble of an idle tongue—and the ears of the King were sharp.
True, Menon might have wedded both Sozana and Semiramis, together with a score of other wives, yet the mate of a daughter of the King must cherish one wife alone. And still again, that man who would divide his love betwixt some other and Semiramis had best go down at once amid the raging fires of Gibil to seek his peace of soul. So Menon, as he rode, was wont to ponder upon these things, and was troubled because of fear.
Semiramis fretted in the absence of her lord, till her heart was rife with a clamorous unrest. She loved him as a tigress loves its mate, and knew no peace till he came to her side again.
Huzim, too, was left behind for a watch-dog in the Governor’s house, a servant who vied with Habal as a sentinel against alarm. If the Indian loved his master, to the mistress he gave idolatry, and naught was there which he would not do to bring her happiness. In the chase which she loved he taught her arts of the jungle-hunt, when the tracker’s hand is brother to his eye, and the eye must sweat because of its constant roving to and fro. He taught her to use her bow, not in the manner of Syrian archers who sight along the shaft, but to shoot from the hip, with vision fixed upon the mark alone, thus giving a quickness following hard upon the heels of thought. Above all other arms he schooled her in the use of a heavy-headed spear on which to receive the body of a pouncing beast; and for his patience Huzim found good cause to thank his gods.
On a certain morning they trailed across the hills, the Indian and Semiramis, while Habal snuffled joyously for any breed of mischief that he chanced to find. Long they hunted, but without a kill, till at mid-day, of a sudden, the dog set up a furious barking in a deep ravine. Semiramis, who chanced to be in the valley’s neck while Huzim hunted far above, came first to the point whence the angry uproar told of game. At first there was naught to see, save Habal dancing in his rage, his lips rolled back, his thick hair bristling; yet, presently, through a tangled screen of thorn and vine, she spied a lion crouched upon the body of a goat, the blood of his victim dripping from his jaws. A mighty beast was he, ill pleased at being thus disturbed; and now, at the sight of Semiramis, he roared his wrath and leaped upon his enemies.
As the lion sprang, the heart of Huzim was like to stop its beat in fear. With a cry of anguish from above he plunged down the steep declivity, heedless of stones and thorns that tore his flesh as he rended a pathway through the interwoven shrubberies. He saw his mistress crouch, and brace the butt of her hunting spear behind her on the earth. He saw a tawny body hurtling through the air, to land on the waiting spear point which, by reason of the brute’s own weight, sank deep into his neck; then the monster shot in a curve above the woman’s head and, snarling, fell among the rocks. With all her strength the huntress clung to her weapon’s haft, striving to hold her prey upon his back, while the cautious Habal, with that over-plus of noise which sometimes covers a lack of pluck, snapped viciously at the brush of the lion’s tail.
Panting, breathless with his toil, the Indian raced toward the spot, notching an arrow as he came, yet Semiramis would have none of him.
“Hold, Huzim!” she cried. “On thy life dare loose a shaft! The kill is mine!”
So Huzim stayed his hand, though it irked him sore to watch while his mistress gripped her spear and was tossed like a rag upon the wind; but at length the lion ceased to struggle, sighing, as he stretched his splendid limbs in death.
Then Huzim—that trail-tried hunter, of many a fight more terrible than this—did a thing which was full of strangeness in a man. Trembling, he cast himself upon the earth, to clasp the feet of Semiramis, to kiss them, and to weep as a child might weep; but his mistress laughed, and patted Huzim’s head, even as it was her wont to fondle Habal for a deed of love.
Homeward they journeyed across the hills, Semiramis proud of the pelt which Huzim bore, while Habal pranced before them, with the air of one who had done this deed alone, and cared not a pinch of wind if the whole world knew and marveled because of a most uncommon dog.
So the hunts went on, for Menon now was much abroad in quelling troubles which arose on every hand; though often in his leisure hours he joined the sport, and this Semiramis loved best of all.
Then the Kurds arose in fierce revolt, and the Governor needs leave his wife for a longer space, though many a bitter tear she shed, in that he would not suffer her to go. She was mad for a taste of war, mad as when with kisses she had urged him on the temple steps at Ascalon; yet Menon closed his ears alike to prayer and subtle argument. And thus it came to pass that she dried her eyes and watched him depart alone.
Now the Kurds were a wild and valiant race of hillsmen dwelling among the rocks, bold men who ceased to long for battle only when vultures picked their carcasses; so Menon and his army journeyed forth and laboured unto that end. He tracked them through wastes of sand, through gorges where torrents rushed, and monster stones came thundering down the pass; yet after a space he lured them to the centre of a plain and sought to give them one more taste of Assyria’s scourge. He screened a strong reserve behind a hill, and then, in seeming disarray, marched down upon the enemy, while the Kurds looked on and were overjoyed because of the greater number of their warriors.
The Kurds awaited not the enemy’s attack, but, shrieking in their barbarous tongue, poured down the slope to catch him in a dip between the hills.
In sooth the case of Assyria seemed evil, yet at a low command the disorder vanished utterly. As if by magic warriors sprang into the close-ranked form of a crescent moon, its curving front a line of bristling spears, its long horns tipped by horse, while in the rear and on either flank a cloud of bowmen waited for their prey.
In the hush before the storm a rider came spurring down the hill, to fling himself from his winded steed and to fall at Menon’s feet.
“Huzim!” breathed the Governor, in a nameless dread. “What now?”
“Forgive, my lord,” the Indian begged upon his knees, “and slay me if thou wilt. The lady Shammuramat—hath gone!”
“Gone?” cried Menon, whitening to the lips. “In the name of Bêlit—where?”
“Nay, lord, I know not,” Huzim, in his grief, protested wildly. “In the hours of night she slipped away unseen. At morning, Habal, Scimitar and she were gone. I tracked them hither, lord, and now—”
His speech was drowned in a rush of howling Kurds, their first line breaking as a wave is shattered on a rock, their second crumpled, bleeding, tossed back in heaps of slain, while the third for an instant glared across the spears, then died as their brothers died. Yet more came on, and more again, an endless stream of madmen, delirious in rage, each caring naught for life so be it that he dragged a foeman down. They hacked at lance heads with their clumsy swords and wormed their way through the legs of the heaving front, till the crescent swayed and was like to burst in rout. And still they came, like waves from out the sea, to strike and fall, roll backward, rise and strike again.
The Governor had held the temper of his enemies in contempt too light, and now repented of his rashness in giving them a vantage ground. He looked for his horsemen screened behind the hill, but Kedah, their captain, was not the man to charge without an order from his chief; so Menon’s soul was troubled for his army’s fate.
“The reserve!” he roared into a courier’s ear. “Ride on the wings of hell! Nay, look! By the grace of all the gods, they come!”
Of a truth it was so. A cloud of horsemen swept along the ridge in the form of a solid wedge, its sharp point aiming full at the foemen’s flank. To the front, three lengths ahead, a steed of Barbary ran low against the earth, on its back a wild-eyed imp of war, unhelmeted, her red hair whipping out behind. In her hand she waved a hunting spear, and urged her men in a high, shrill scream that rang above the battle’s din—and the men came on as evil spirits drive. Downward they plunged, to strike the Kurds with the shock of a thunder-bolt, to bore a ragged pathway through the seething ruck; then turned and bored back again.
And now the hearts of the Kurds grew faint, and a scrambling rout began; yet ere they could flee, the horsemen battered through their flank once more, circled, and took them in their rear. The crescent steadied, formed its line again, and spread to cut the Kurds’ retreat; but Menon, shouting words that were hoarse and strange, flung wisdom to the seven winds, and charged.
Destruction dire might have come upon the enemy, but so long as he saw that flaming head that rocked on a surf of reeling, blood-mad warriors, he knew no thought save one—to reach Semiramis and be her shield. With Huzim close behind he won his way through a tangle of plunging steeds and men, but paused at last, to battle vainly at a human wall which he might not pierce.
As it chanced, the Kurds were caught between two closing jaws which pinched them as in a vice; yet full a third swarmed out at right and left, to scurry away among the distant crags where none but snakes might follow after.
The battle was done at last. A silence fell where the crash and roar of carnage had resounded through the hills. The Assyrian footmen were drawn in triple lines, and Menon recalled his horsemen who galloped far and wide, impaling stragglers on their points. At last they came, Semiramis in the lead, while behind her rode a soul-sick horseman, his chin sunk low upon his breast. Kedah was he called, the captain in whose command the reserve had been entrusted, and he who had charged without his chieftain’s word. In silence he dismounted; from his saddle he produced a rope which he looped about his neck, then gave the end into Menon’s hand.
The Governor frowned darkly and his rage was deep; not that the officer had charged without command, but because this underling had dared to bring Semiramis into a raging, blood-bespattered pool of death.
“Speak, Kedah—the truth! Be brief!”
“My lord,” replied the man, who thought himself about to die, “my lips speak truth, as Bêlit watcheth me. I sat behind yon hill and waited for the word to ride. I heard the tumult when the battle joined, and though I yearned to come upon the dogs, I held my will in leash.” The offender paused, glanced backward at Semiramis, smiled, and spoke again: “Of a sudden, my lord, this goddess dropped upon us from the clouds, for I swear I saw her not till her grip was on mine arm and she cursed me in mine ear. ’Fool!’ she cried, ’why dawdle here when the great lord Menon sweateth in the toils. At them, ye swine, or by the living gods I charge alone!’”
Kedah paused, to shrug and spread his hands, palms upward.
“My lord, I came. I know not why I came—but came.”
Another silence fell. The angered Governor looked from Kedah to Semiramis. She sat her steed in the glory of a beauty dear to him; her cheeks were flushed, her eyes aflame with battle-fires, her red locks tumbling on a breast revealed, for her robe was rent and torn. Still Menon’s lips moved not; then Kedah raised his head, his fingers toying nervously at his noose.
“My lord, I do perceive no tree in sight, yet, haply, further on—”
He stopped, for Semiramis loosed a ringing laugh and vaulted from the back of Scimitar, to approach the chief without a sense of fear or shame.
“My lord,” said she, and pointed with her hunting spear, “if, in truth, this sturdy warrior must hang, then first shalt thou hang Shammuramat.” She snatched the noose from Kedah’s neck and laid it about her own. “And harken, O Prince of Justice,” she cried aloud, “in his throat this fellow lieth! Aye, even to spare me thy reproof! It was I who disobeyed, not he, for I told him I came at thine own command.”
Now the lady had spoken no such thing, and, truly, it was as Kedah said; yet the sweet lie joyed the hearts of the horsemen mightily, and a smile ran rippling down the line. Presently Semiramis spoke again, humbly, sadly, with her hands clasped tight, in the manner of a slave condemned to die:
“My lord, I do perceive no tree in sight, yet, haply, further on—”
Then a roar of laughter burst from every rank, and even as it broke, so yearned these men to break from their ordered lines, to hoist a war-queen up and bear her on their harnessed backs, to shout her praise aloud.
So Menon ceased to frown, for how could he hold his anger at a conqueror of enemies and friends? Had she not saved his army and his very life itself? What now! So he took her to his heart, though his heart was sad. In a little space the tidings would leak abroad concerning this warrior queen who was his wife, and because of love his soul grew dark within him and was afraid.
On the homeward march Semiramis sought by many an art and wile to chase away his gloom, but ever he would sigh and shake his head.
“Ah, love,” he murmured, “now have we cut a link from out our chain of happiness, for when my master learneth of this thing—”
“Poof!” she laughed. “’Twas worth a link or two of love; and even though King Ninus naileth me against his wall, still will I have thundered down that slope and tasted once of the wine of war. Smile, Menon mine!”
And Menon smiled—in that she bade him smile.