THE LIFTING OF A TAX
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
The army marched swiftly back to Azapah, for the place was sore in need of the Governor’s fist. In his absence the people, growing bold, had stoned his agents, slaying many in their hatred toward Assyria’s King. So Menon straightway rode from tribe to tribe, advising patience until Nineveh was builded, when peace and plenty would once more lay upon the land. Where wisdom and cunning failed to pacify, there Menon employed a rod of force, even as Ninus held the growling hordes of Egypt beneath his thumb. The King had grown vexed at reports from Karnak that the children of the Nile were chafing beneath their yoke, so he sent swift messengers, saying that upon the day when Egypt flew to arms, that day would he crucify their Prince Memetis on the walls of Nineveh. And Egypt ceased to growl.
In all his dealings with the tribes of Syria, Menon soon learned that the wit of Semiramis was sharper than his own. When his strings of policy grew twisted into knotted snarls, she would lay her fingers on the hidden ends, pull deftly, and the skein was free again. Thus, more and more, the Governor leaned upon the shoulder of his wife’s advice, till there came a time when, stricken by a fever, he gave the rule of Syria into her hands.
Tenderly Semiramis nursed her lord through the life of a summer moon, and yet not once did her eyelids close on the troubles beyond her house. From there she sent her agents forth with oil upon their tongues, or planned with Kedah, in whose command she placed the Assyrian force of arms; for Kedah loved her with such a love as Habal gave, albeit he rarely snapped at the brush of a lion’s tail. In her best appointed room she received the headmen of every tribe, who came with grievances, or for favours great and small. To each she listened thoughtfully, while scanning his face for flaws beneath the skin, then she dealt with the man in accordance with his flaws. With the bold she was bold; with the timid, gentle in her speech; with the sullen she soothed away the temper in their hearts and made them whole again. On the vain she smiled, nor recked the issue to his soul, while she laughed with the gay, and was sober before the wise. Thus each man came and went, rejoicing at departure because of his own uplifted understanding, yet knowing not that the swaying of mortal flesh, to Semiramis, was a master-art of arts.
“The juice of flattery,” said she, “must needs be mixed with bread—not honey-cakes—for an over-sweetness cloyeth and is vain.”
Now it chanced, that among the dwellers at Azapah, there were those who starved, alike on the bread of flattery and the little left them by the grasp of tax; so they met in a secret place and contrived a plot to destroy the Governor’s house with fire, while those who slept therein should come not forth alive. With the army close at hand they dare not move; yet when Kedah led his force away to fall upon a certain band of malcontents, the plotters over-powered the guards who were left behind, slew them, then came to make their evil works complete.
At the hour of midnight Semiramis sat by Menon’s couch, albeit the fever now had passed and his body was on the mend; yet it joyed her thus to mother him and to watch him while he slept. Habal lay yawning at her feet, but of a sudden the bristles rose upon his back and a rasping mutter trembled in his throat.
“Peace, Habal, peace!” his mistress urged, fearful lest the growls disturb her lord; yet the dog would not be stilled. Crouched at the stout-barred door, he growled afresh, and Semiramis knew full well that Habal snuffed a trouble in the air; so, calling Hazim, she mounted to the roof.
To the left she saw the tents of her guard in flames, while through the night came a close-packed throng, their ugly visages alight in the glare of many a torch. A hideous crew they were, the scum and evildoers of the plains, half clothed, and armed with staves and stones. At the sight, the heart of Semiramis grew cold within her breast—not for her own alarm, but for him who slept below, and, shrinking with Huzim behind a parapet, she waited, pondering hard and fast.
On came the crowd, full twenty score, who, if they would, might override the Governor’s feeble strength in the twinkling of an eye, dash down the doors and drag the inmates forth to butchery. Yet ere a torch could be set against the walls, the plotters saw a woman leap upon the parapet above, to smile upon them and raise her hands in glad surprise, as though they bore her precious wedding gifts.
“Greeting!” she cried. “What seek ye of Shammuramat?”
Now a murderer’s liver is a cousin to his slinking mind, and these who came were murderers. Of a certainty, had they reached the house by stealth, they would have burned it to the earth, showing no mercy to the Governor or his wife. Yet when this vision stood upon the housetop, not as one who pleads for life, but as a master knowing them for the cattle which they were, then the plotters faltered in their course and paused. A silence fell, and for a moment no man found his tongue.
“What seek ye of Shammuramat?”
“The Governor!” cried a voice amongst the throng. “The Governor! Give him into our hands!”
“Ah!” said the lady upon the roof, as she nodded pleasantly. “Ah, I see! Right gladly would my lord come out to you, but my lord is not within.” She raised her hand to check a murmur of dissent, and smiled. “If friends would speak with him, I pray them wait for a little space, for even now he returneth with his men-at-arms. Harken!” She placed a hand behind her ear and gazed toward the north, whence Kedah and his force would come at dawn. “Harken to the clatter of his cavalry and the beat of hoofs upon the plain. Patience, good friends—he cometh!”
They listened, tricked for an instant by her words, but only the croak of frogs and the hum of insects sounded on the breeze; then the cowards’ muttering swelled into a roar of rage. A volley of stones was flung against the house, one missile striking her upon the temple, causing her to totter on the roof’s edge dizzily, while a trickle of blood ran down her cheek. Huzim had marked the man who hurled this stone, and, cursing, he set an arrow on his bow; but the mistress stayed his hand.
“Down, Huzim! I yet may deal with them. Be not a fool!”
Once more she turned to the scowling men who had stopped their rush when they saw the wound to one on whom their vengeance lay not so heavily; yet they hung in the balance now, and the weight of a hair might tip the beam.
“Perchance,” she called aloud, “ye have a grievance, just, and one which I might quickly mend. What, then, would ye have of me?—I who have ever kept my promises, even though it brought me wounds, as I now am wounded at your hands. Speak! If it lieth within my power to grant—”
She was checked by a babel of discordant cries from the tongue of each who sought above the rest to air a separate woe; and Semiramis smiled within herself, though she frowned upon them with the dark displeasure of a queen.
“Be silent, dogs!” she commanded, fiercely. “What! Would ye burst my ears with the yelpings of your pack? Have done!”
They stared. She had them marveling now, and would keep them marveling, lest idle thought breed mischief ere she clipped its wings.
“Let one step forth!” she called. “Your leader. What! Is there not one man in all this valiant throng?” She paused to raise her eyes and hands. “Dear Ishtar, pity them!”
A mighty murmuring arose, when each man nudged his fellow, urging him to speak for all, till at last a hairy-chested, black-browed villain pushed toward the front—the same who had flung the stone, and Huzim’s fingers curled about his bow, and he whimpered in restraint.
The leader spoke. He made his charge against the Governor who pressed, he said, upon the people till their children cried aloud for food. He lied; yet he lied with a certain air of honesty; and as he marked each point, the rabble applauded him, while their fury was like to bubble up afresh. He told of his nation staggering beneath the load of an unjust tax, when Ninus built him palaces wherein to squander wealth in wild debauchery. His people, he declared, were overjoyed to obey the King and pay him tribute according to the law; but when he sought to starve them by the right of might, then Syria bared her teeth. Justice they asked—no more—and received the lash.
“Stay!” cried Semiramis, seeing that the crowd was pushed by frenzy to the danger line. “If your hearts are hot against the King alone, why then would ye seek to harm my lord who standeth between the wrath of Ninus and your worthless carcasses?”
A reckless speech it was, and well she knew that she laid her finger on an open sore.
“Why?” the leader thundered. “Why? Because we would strike the master through the man! A Governor shall be no more in Syria, save a Governor dead!” Amid hoarse shoutings he lifted up his voice again: “If Menon would plunder bread from the mouths of women, let Menon come forth alone, to reckon with their sons—their brothers—and those who love them as they love their land.”
A tumult now arose. The torch-lights flickered on a sea of upturned faces, black with wrath, distorted by the passions of ferocious men full ripe for a deed of blood. They gathered for a rush; great stones were raised aloft, and flaming brands were whirled in eager fists.
But Semiramis had one shaft in her quiver still, and, setting it upon the string of craft, she let it fly. She flung her arms toward the sky, and laughed—a shrill, derisive peal that echoed far beyond the outskirts of the band and for an instant checked its charge; then, from the housetop, she pointed a scornful finger at the black-browed chief.
“Thou child!” she cried. “Thou suckling babe! Thou fool! to whom the asses of the wilderness are as oracles! What! Hast thou, then, not heard?” She paused, to give her listeners the space of an indrawn breath, then full in their teeth she launched a master-lie.
“Harken!” she cried, “and bend your knees in gratitude. King Ninus hath lifted his tax from Syria—and no man needs must pay!”
A hush of wonder fell upon the throng, and in the silence Semiramis heard a rustling at her side. Turning, she looked into Menon’s eyes, grown large in fear, and seeming larger still against the pallor of his pain-drawn face. He had heard the tumult and had risen from his couch, to crawl to the house-top, trembling in the weakness of his state.
“Bêlit!” he gasped in hoarse dismay. “What madness wouldst thou do?”
“Nay, wait!” she whispered. “Huzim, hold thy master, that these madmen see him not.” Then she turned to the crew below. “Oho!” she scoffed. “I see that ye are filled with shame; yet hear the end. At the prayers of my lord the Governor, King Ninus harkened to your murmurings, and giveth unto Syria what he giveth no other land. Not only doth he lift the burden of your tax, but commandeth that no man pay a sum which he payeth not of his own desire; wherein the King would measure generosity, not by force, but love. Moreover, he offereth a high reward in the nature of a prize. To the tribe which may aid his needs by the largest store, that tribe will Ninus set above all other tribes in riches and in power, receiving its headmen as his honoured guests at Nineveh.” Once more the speaker paused, till the meaning of her words had sunk into wondering ears. “What now,” she asked, “is the King a tyrant, or your Governor a beast to slay?”
For a moment more a silence held the marveling men, then they broke into a mighty roar, shouting while they stamped upon their torches, weeping, cheering lustily for Menon and the King. Yet Semiramis was not yet done with them. She raised her hand for silence, pointed to the smoking ruins of the camp, and spoke in her sternest tone:
“For what ye have done this night, my lord forgiveth you because of your swinish ignorance. Yet have a care, for every evil face amongst your pack is chiseled on my memory. Once, not twice, the Governor may forgive, and a rope there is in Syria for each offending neck. Now go! and thank the gods for the little wisdom ye have learned.”
So the murderers dispersed, and, silent, scattered far and wide to seek their homes, while a priestess of guile, who lingered on the housetop, looked after them and laughed.
“Menon mine,” she murmured, filled with glee, as she smoothed the pillows on his couch, “by Ishtar I swear ’twas keener sport than a dash against the Kurds!”
Menon and Semiramis took thought together, long and earnestly; for now, when the Syrians learned how they had been deceived, the ashes of murder would burst again in flames. Menon was for hanging every man who had sought to burn his house, but Semiramis said nay.
“By craft have we sown a seed; by craft will we nurture it and eat the fruit.”
Thus it came to pass that a cunning proclamation was sent throughout the land, and the simple peoples rejoiced and sang songs of praise because of the lifting of their tax. Moreover the many tribes began to vie with one another for the prize which Semiramis had offered in the name of Ninus, till unto Azapah they brought such stores of metals and of food, that Menon reaped a harvest far beyond his dreams. Where tribes were wont to dole their tribute out through doubled fists, they now came swiftly and unbidden, with treasures on their backs—for men look not where their footsteps fall when chasing swamp-flies to a goal of greed and power.
And now to Nineveh came mighty stores of grain and wine, long lines of sheep and cattle, asses, goats, and the water buffalo. Metals came likewise, silver, gold and brass; fruits were there also, and honey in earthen jars. Whatever dry Syria owned, that Syria sent, till Ninus, seeing this stream of riches pouring through his gates, sat down upon his stool both suddenly and hard, in the grip of profound amaze.
“Now by the great lord Asshur,” he muttered in his beard, “these eyes of mine have never looked upon the like before! In thought have I wronged my Menon grievously, for in truth he loveth me with a love that is rare amongst the sons of men.”