A MASTER’S KISS
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
For a year, since his appointment, the Governor of Syria had dwelt at Azapah, a central point where his army camped, and whence his agents and his spies went forth to every tribe. Yet Azapah was a home in name alone, for Menon’s eye was ever set on the works of his under-officers. He would ride from point to point, descending at uncertain times on those whose duties dozed in lethargy, or on others whose fingers stuck by chance to certain taxes of the King. And as Ninus made examples on the walls of Nineveh, so Menon dealt with those who disobeyed his will; for the body of a wicked, slothful servant was held to be of higher value when detached from the head which led his steps astray. Thus Menon won the name of a cruel master, albeit a whisper now and again went forth of many a poor man’s taxes paid in full from the Governor’s own purse.
He journeyed ever on his noble steed of Barbary, whose name was Scimitar, in honor of Boabdul’s blade, and, likewise, was attended by the Indian slave who came as the Arab’s second gift. In Huzim he found a jewel and a friend, whose heart he won by a stroke of policy. From the first the Governor had been kind to him, and when the borders of Arabia were passed, Huzim was given his freedom, to return if he would to his home upon the Indus; but the Indian fell upon his knees, to kiss the master’s hand and cover it with tears. His freedom he accepted with a grateful heart, yet prayed to remain in the service of his lord, to whom he proved a faithful watch-dog unto the end. His mighty bow and shafts brought many a dish of flesh to Menon’s board, and at night his body lay athwart the master’s door, where none might pass and live to slink away again.
Now Menon had tarried beside the lake of Ascalon for a longer space than was his wont to abide in any place; yet business there was none to stay his leave, nor taxes in arrears. The voice of duty whispered warnings in his ear, pointing unto urgent matters far afield; yet duty, he swore, might sleep with Gibil till Semiramis was seen again.
For many days he sought her among the hills, from the crack of dawn till the brazen sun went down, yet found her not; and his heart, because of its hunger for the maid, grew faint within him and clamored for a food denied.
Semiramis, too, was haunted by a certain restlessness of mind and foot, a goad which ever kept her on the move. Close hidden within some clump of trees, she would watch the hunter’s fruitless search from hour to hour. Her eyes grew wistful, and a fever burned in her racing blood, though pride, a demon’s pride, forbade that she suffer capture at his hands. If the seeker came near unto her hiding place, she would straightway creep away to some other vantage point and watch him with a scowl. Yet, because of his lack of craft in snaring her, hot anger mounted to the heights of foolishness, causing her to mutter curses on him, bitter, deep, and to vent her wrath upon things inanimate. At last she left the lover to his own device, and with her spear and arrows hunted far and wide, thus finding relief in a savage joy of killing beasts—the great, the small—she cared not which, so be it that she killed.
Then Menon, in despair, set Huzim on her trail, for in prowess of the chase, or in coming up with wary things, there were none the like of him throughout the land. So Huzim circled round about and found what his master sought.
At the close of one long red day, when the sun swung low and purple clouds were banked against the rim of night, the Indian bore word that Semiramis returned to Ascalon by way of a certain path; so Menon hid himself and lay in wait. From a leafy screen he watched her coming, while his breath grew warm and quick, and nearer she came, unconscious of the snare. Her bow and quiver rattled at her back with each slow step; she used her spear for a walking staff, and her flame-hued head was bowed upon her breast. In the dust she dragged the body of a leopard by its tail, while her sheep-dog Habal trotted at her heels.
Of a sudden Menon stepped across her path, and, with folded arms, stood smiling as he blocked her way. With a startled cry Semiramis leaped backward, while Habal crouched between his mistress and the man, his thick hair bristling down his spine, an ugly rumble in his hoarse, deep growl.
The Governor spoke contritely and in a prayerful tone, yet the maiden met his pleading with a torrent of abuse. This he bore with fortitude, and when she paused for breath, he strove to gain his end by reason, knowing not that an angry woman scorns it as she scorns no other thing in heaven or hell. Of this he learned unto his woe, but when he would have overborne her, snatching at her hand, she struck him with the butt of her hunting spear and set her dog upon him.
Straight at his throat the black dog leaped, but Menon caught it by the neck and held its jaws, though its strength was great and it battled with him mightily. For a space they struggled for a master-grip, yet Habal’s teeth, in the end, were of no avail, for Menon squeezed him till his bones were like to crack, while he turned once more to Semiramis and urged his suit.
Now a lover will find a grievous task in murmuring into a maiden’s ear, and at the same time hold a foaming, furious dog; so the maiden mocked him because of his sad discomfiture, and stirred his wrath. Peal on peal of impish laughter rang out in the twilight hush, till Menon cursed, and, clutching Habal still, turned angrily away.
Then the maiden’s merriment died swiftly on her lips, for she saw that he stole her dog; and with a cry of fury she set a shaft upon her bow and drew it to its head. In an instant now the Governor would tax her land no more, and Habal and her heart might then be free. And yet she faltered—paused; then dashed her weapon on the earth, to fling herself beside it, weeping bitterly.
So Menon bore the struggling Habal in his arms, till he reached his house, where he tamed the brute and made of him a friend. Long, long he labored unto this end with morsels of tempting food and many a soft caress, till at last the captive wagged his tail and licked a master’s hand.
Menon had conquered, yet he could not soothe a look of sadness deep in Habal’s eyes, nor cause him to desist from snuffling at the outer door where he scratched with his paws and whined.
At length, when the third day passed, the lover clasped a collar of gold on Habal’s neck and whispered into his ear; but Habal looked into his face, bewildered, for he did not understand.
“Shammuramat!” cried Menon, sharply, and the glad beast sprang upon him, whimpering in his joy. The door was opened. Habal, barking, bounded through, to burn the earth with the beat of his flying paws. Yet on the crest of a distant hill he stopped, looked back and barked again, then disappeared. And the lover, watching, understood—and smiled.
So Habal found his mistress, as she drooped in the doorway of her father’s home, and overturned her in the pure delight of coming into his own. He fawned upon her, yelping out his love aloud; he muzzled her, caressing with paw and tongue, to prove devotion far deeper in its purity than aught a mortal holds on the altar of his heart.
Semiramis, too, was glad at her dog’s return, for she took him in her arms, and, weeping strangely, hid her face on his shaggy breast; but when she saw the collar Habal wore, her fury boiled afresh. She tore it from his neck and gave it to a beggar who had wandered into Ascalon.
The beggar took the trinket gratefully, then hobbled away as fast as his legs might carry him, though ever and anon he cast a glance behind, in the manner of one who marvels and may not understand. Now whether this persistent turning brought good or evil, is a matter hidden in the beggar’s soul alone, for, presently, a horse came tearing down the wind, while a wild-haired girl leaned low upon its neck, augmenting speed with frantic voice and heel. She came upon the wanderer suddenly, reining in her steed till it reared upon its haunches, pawing at the air, its mouth stretched wide, its nostrils red and quivering. Then the girl dismounted, demanding back her gift.
The beggar protested, and, muttering, turned away, but she menaced him with her hunting spear, and of a certainty would have pinned him to the earth had he not obeyed. Slowly he produced the golden collar from his pouch and tossed it at her feet.
“Hound!” cried Semiramis, “pick it up and give it in my hand!” Again her spear was poised, so the beggar stooped to do her bidding hastily; then, while this fiery hawkling rode away, he lingered, gazing after her in loose-jawed wonderment.
Semiramis made a wide detour to pass the lake, where she flung poor Habal’s collar far into the deep—repented, and on the morrow dived and recovered it again. That night she sought her sleep with the bauble nestling upon her heart; but sleep came not, for her flesh seemed burned by every golden link. She hurled it from her angrily and was happy for a space, then stole from her couch and hunted till she found it in the dark.
When she had it, she hated it; but when she had it not, she longed for it with a gnawing, furious desire which ever increased in heat and magnitude; wherein it may be seen that Semiramis, though a goddess born, was human—and a woman—after all.
Meanwhile the Messengers of State were waiting patiently for Menon’s answer to the King at Nineveh; yet the Governor bade them tarry on for yet a little while, and took to hunting from a vantage point on the back of his good steed Scimitar.
One morning Habal’s barking caught his ear, so he followed the sound till he reached the spine of a high, adjacent hill. In the centre of a plain beyond he spied Semiramis, unarmed, and walking slowly; so his heart rose up as he patted Scimitar and loosed the rein. In the night he had vowed no more to plead his cause with a lowly mien, but would break this witch’s spirit though he heat her with his fists.
Semiramis saw him coming, and her heart stood still. The lake was far too distant for a haven of retreat, and the plain was bare of bush or thicket through which she might elude pursuit. Should she stand and face him? Yea! By Ishtar, no! He then might fancy that she waited him—she—Semiramis! So she turned and fled.
The maid was fleet of foot, and skimmed the earth with the speed of a frightened fawn; yet her pace, alas, was a paltry match for the splendid stride of Scimitar. Behind her she heard the thunder of his hoofs, but louder still chimed out the notes of Menon’s laughter as his joy gave tongue. He was nearer now! He pressed upon her flank! Then Menon bent and gathered up the maiden in his arms. She screamed and bit his hand; she scratched him, raining buffets on his face and breast; but he only; laughed the more, and kissed her on the mouth and eyes.
On, on they sped, with mighty leaps and bounds, for Scimitar knew not what manner of warlocks fought upon his back, so he took the bit between his teeth and ran as before he had never run, while the toiling Habal panted far behind.
Now after a space Semiramis ceased to strive, and lay passive in the rider’s grasp. It pleased her thus to be torn from the roots of her own hot willfulness. It joyed her to be battered against a victor’s heart, to drink in the pain of a hand wound tight within her locks, and to feel her strength give way beneath his brutal power. For thus it was written that Semiramis should love, in stormy passion, where an humble prayer was trampled under foot in scorn.
So it came to pass that of a sudden she flung her arms about the conqueror’s neck and sobbed as though her soul were rent in twain, while he, to soothe the tempest of her tears, bent down and kissed her lips. Again and yet again he bent, till Semiramis raised her head and stared upon him in amaze.
“In the name of the gods!” she cried, “how many wouldst thou take?”
“Not one,” laughed Menon, “which thou givest me unwillingly, for I do but return thy courtesies upon the temple steps.”
“Eh—what!” she faltered, flushing crimson at his speech. “Nay, truly, I recall but three—”
“So be it, then,” said Menon, with another laugh and still another kiss. “T’is in my mind that when my body had been drowned, and lying helpless in thy power—”
“Beast!” she stormed, in grievous doubt if she should strain him to her heart or take his life; yet Menon lived.
The Governor turned his steed on the backward trail and journeyed till they came in sight of Ascalon; then he slid from the back of Scimitar and walked beside, lest idle shepherds marvel at the strangeness of uncommon things; albeit he still held tight to the maiden’s hand.
Semiramis, from her perch, looked down into her lover’s eyes, and her spirit sang because of its bubbling joy, for now he was hers—hers!—till the very stars should die; yet, suddenly, she dragged at the bridle rein.
“Wait! What, then, of this minx, Sozana?”
Menon frowned, yet looked upon her steadily.
“Of her,” he answered, “thy mind need hold no fear, for I love her not. To-morrow will I leave the service of my King and fly with thee into Arabia. With Prince Boabdul will we there abide, for his love will shield me, even from the wrath of Ninus.”
“Now that,” spoke Semiramis, thoughtfully, “were the course of a fledgling and a fool.” A moment more she pondered, looking up at last. “Tell me, can Ninus conquer Zariaspa, or will he fail again?”
“Zariaspa?” asked Menon, vacantly, wondering how this matter ran with his flight into the desert with a wife. “Zariaspa?”
“Aye, Zariaspa!” she repeated in impatience. “The town—the city! What! Is my lord a frog? Come, lace thy wits. Will Ninus conquer Zariaspa in the end?”
“Nay,” said Menon, “for the walls are high and strong, while the food of the garrison is brought by some mysterious means, the which is a puzzle unrevealed by thought, or search, or vigilance. Again, and yet again, will Ramân-Nirari fail.”
“Ah!” breathed Semiramis, nodding in the manner of some venerable judge. “Then write thy King in this wise: I, Menon, Governor of Syria, greet my lord and master, even as a son might greet his father, in love and reverence. Because of the honor he hath done me, my heart o’erfloweth with a joy, and in glad obedience to a monarch’s will, I accept his dau—”
“Hold!” cried Menon, angrily. “Now by, the beard of—”
“Nay,” laughed Semiramis, “but wait the end.” Again she borrowed of an aged judge’s mien. “—I accept thy daughter’s hand. And now, O Radiant One, I crave a boon—not for myself alone, but for my King. When Zariaspa shall be overthrown, and another gem is set in the war-crown of my lord, then let these nuptials be proclaimed. Thus, men will marvel, saying among themselves: Of a verity King Ninus is divine; for who but a god would share the glory of his name with an humble warrior—one unworthy of reward so high.” Semiramis paused to smile. “In closing thy letter, praise the King because of the city which he buildeth on the sand. Contrive thy words with an artful edge of truth, in that you touch his vanity. A touch—no more. Yet, above all else, be brief, and of a not too marked humility.”
A light of understanding crept into Menon’s eyes, yet a cloud arose to mar his perfect happiness.
“But—but,” he stammered, “if, peradventure, King Ninus conquereth this city, after all—then—”
“Poof!” scoffed Semiramis. “At worst we will have loved for two untroubled years—and much may chance in that goodly span of time.”
For answer, Menon, caring not a fig if a thousand shepherds saw, laughed happily, then drew her down to him and kissed her laughing lips.
Across the hills of Syria the lovers journeyed at a crawling pace, Semiramis enthroned upon the back of Scimitar, while Menon, with her hand clasped tight in his, strolled slowly at the bridle-rein.
They reached the home of Simmas, and a dancing dog ran out, to spring upon them, barking joyously.