THEY THAT DEPART AND HE THAT IS LEFT BEHIND
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
Simmas, chief warden of the royal flocks and herds, was a venerable man both wise and strong, yet his heart was as water running before the will of his foster-child. Unto him the lovers brought the matter of their vows, concealing naught of the danger to themselves, nor the wrath of Ninus should he learn how they sought to flatter him and dim his eye. Gravely had Simmas listened, smiling indulgent smiles, though his heart was sore afraid for her whom he loved so tenderly; and, at length when the tale was done, he sighed and shook his wise old head.
“My son,” said he, “there are valiant men who have hied them forth to capture beasts of prey with arrows and with spears; others, more reckless still, go armed with ropes and stones, yet never have I known of one who laboured to that end by tickling a lion’s nose with straws.”
“How know we, then,” asked Semiramis, “that a lion may not be vastly pleased thereat?”
Poor Simmas was forced to laugh, for how could the man do otherwise, with two round arms clasped tight about his neck, a pink cheek nestled lovingly against his own? And thus his foster-child met every argument, twisting his threads of wisdom into ropes of foolishness, until, reluctantly, he gave them blessing, smiling through his tears.
“Down, Habal,” cried Semiramis, “and lick thy master’s hand.” And the dog went down.
So it came to pass that the messengers went out from Syria and knelt to Ninus as he sat upon his watch-tower in the heat of a certain day. They bore him a missive which that Monarch read for the seventh time, then read again in sore perplexity, his fingers combing at his beard. It preened his vanity as by a feather-touch of truth, and joyed his nostrils with the unctuous odour of his own divinity—a point whereon his pride was prodded grievously of late.
At his failure in subduing Zariaspa, a whisper leaked abroad that Ninus was but a mortal, after all; and through his harshness unto those who toiled on the walls of Nineveh, the whisper swelled in volume and in frequency, till now it lay upon him in the hours of sleep. The voice of the people grumbled sullenly, or cried aloud because of the yoke of tax; yet, far more clamorous still, the whisper troubled at his heart, for a god once doubted is a god undone.
Therefore, in Menon’s missive, the King found goodly food for thought; and yet, on the other hand there seemed a haunting something underneath, a something which caused him to taste with care ere he swallowed whole.
“Now as I live,” mused Ninus to his inward self, “my Menon loveth me with a love that is rare amongst the sons of men; or else, full cry, he followeth the trail of a woman other than Sozana. A woman of wit! A dreadless woman—a guileful and a wise.”
The monarch pondered deeply for a space, while he combed at his beard and gazed toward the walls of Nineveh; then, suddenly, he frowned and leaned across the parapet.
“Zomar!” he called to a mounted man-at-arms below, “ride out to yonder chief of labourers by the western gate and admonish him to ply his whip with a higher diligence; for it cometh to me that the villain’s head is balanced over-lightly on his neck.”
Across the Syrian hills, beneath the splendour of a million stars, rode Menon and Semiramis, side by side. Their hearts were full with the fullness of a joy which conquers speech and leaves them to beat with a voiceless pulse of peace. Their eyes alone told secrets, tender, deep, for each had hunted through the desert for a grain of sand, and, finding it, was glad, for they knew that its name was love.
Before them, silent too, rode Huzim, his head bowed low upon his mighty chest, for a worm of jealousy had entered him because of this love of a master for his bride. Was a slave not human? Should his lowly mind be proof against the poison of forgetfulness? A slave! And yet—the master’s hand had freed him of his chains, while he himself had riveted them again. What now? Were the cloaks of love not strange and manifold? So gratitude rose up to choke the jealous worm; then Huzim raised his head once more and crooned the songs of those who dwell where the Indus runs and the sun is warm.
For league on league they journeyed through the night, each heart a slave, each thought a link in the chain of loving servitude. In the van rode Huzim, singing softly in his native tongue; behind him came Menon and Semiramis, hand in hand, while, still again, as a rear-guard of the march, the wise, untroubled Habal trotted at their heels.
On the hills of Syria the shepherds built their fires against the chill of night; and many a youth looked long amongst the flames for the eyes of Shammuramat—strange eyes that peered from the embers impishly, half veiled in coils of smoke. They danced! They mocked! Now laughing when some green young twig was burned; now falling into darkness with its blackened ash. How sad they were, these ashes of a dream—as sad as the bleat of a wandering sheep as the cry came floating down the wind. And yet—what, then, should a goddess have to do with the herders of browsing beasts, or they with her? Should an ox lick salt from off the stars? Nay, not so!
Thus wisdom came to the watchers of the fires, till peace was brought by drowsiness, and the shepherds slept.
In the home of Simmas an old man paced the silent rooms and found not peace nor rest. How bare and desolate when a loved one came no more! How pitiful they were, these homely things that her hand was wont to touch—a broken spear—a quiver cast aside—a sandal old and worn!
He fled to the housetop from the ghosts below, but they followed, clutching at his robe with the hands of memory. He had hunted through the desert for a grain of sand, and found it not, for, lo! his sand was dust. Then Simmas fell upon his knees and stretched his withered arms toward the stars.
“Oh, Ishtar, Ishtar,” he cried aloud, “fling pity to a weak old man!”