THE SANDAL AND THE STRAWS
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
And now came a day when Nineveh was Nineveh at last, and Ninus stood upon his palace roof and was glad because of the Opal of the East. At his feet a vast brown city lay—a city builded by his heart—each brick a monument to other hearts that broke in rearing temples to Assyria’s gods. In the streets a busy hum of trade arose, where marts and booths were opened to the sale of a thousand wares; where citizens in gala dress swarmed in and out of unfamiliar doors; where troops of children danced in wreaths of flowers, or white-robed priests filed past, chanting their deep-toned songs and bearing loads in sacrifice to the temple of Nineb and up its winding ziggurat.
From the palace steps a broad, smooth road ran down to the western gate and was lined by effigies of stone, great wingéd bulls, and lions crouching as for a spring. Around it all the mighty wall lay coiled, its top of a width whereon three chariots might be driven abreast, while above rose a thousand and a half a thousand towers.
The army still encompassed Nineveh around, yet the King was not for war. He looked on his work and sighed a sigh of peace, then stretched his mighty limbs and prepared a lion hunt. For three long years his heart had yearned for sports afield, with a yearning which hunters alone may know; yet, because of his vow, the bow and spear were left untouched by the monarch’s hand.
Consulting his oracles, and likewise the prophet Azet whose arts foretold great deeds of wonder to his arms, the King appointed another Governor in Syria and commanded Menon to join him on the banks of the lower Euphrates. Here game might be found in plenty where Ninus had known rare pleasures of the chase in former days; so, smiling, he set him forth.
When the messengers had come to Azapah, Menon bowed to the master’s will and departed with a heavy heart, first sending Semiramis with Huzim back to Ascalon, to dwell for a little space till chance might bring him into Syria again. He reached the banks of the Euphrates and waited the royal hunter till a moon had waned; but Ninus came not, because of the slowness of his journey to the place.
The King, in sitting much upon his tower while Nineveh was being builded, had laid a deal of fat upon his bones, and tedious travel irked him; moreover, in the hunt his breath was shorter than of yore and his thews less strong. Yet the mind may ofttimes entertain a zeal beyond the body’s power, and in this King Ninus brewed a trouble for himself—but the trouble was yet to come.
Semiramis, at parting with her lord, wept bitter tears; yet she, too, bowed where wisdom left no loophole of escape, and journeyed with Huzim and Habal back to Ascalon. And here her grief must find another stab, keener, deeper, more sad than the parting from one who would come again; for in the house of Simmas an old man lay asleep—a woman’s sandal pressed against his beard.
They buried Simmas far out upon the hillside, where in years gone by a babe was mothered by a flock of doves. The babe was a woman now, who loved her foster-father tenderly and above all others save her lord alone; so she wept beside the grave for many days.
“A dove was he,” she whispered to her lonely heart, “so fond, so gentle in his ministries—a dove that winged his flight and left me, only because of Ishtar’s yearning cry.”
In her two long years of absence Semiramis had oft’times dreamed of Ascalon, longing to roam its hills once more or to swim in its cool, green lake; yet now it all seemed strangely poor and small. The shores of the lake had shrunk together in the night; the hills were not so high as the hills of yore, nor the trees so green; the vault of the very sky itself seemed pressing down to smother her, and the smell of the very earth was not the same. Ah, if she were like to Habal who could see no change in the march of time; yet Habal was but a dog!
Now, concerning this dog, the mistress erred and grievously. Not only did he mark the change in Ascalon, but a greater one within himself. He swaggered through the village with his tail held high, in the manner of one who had done large deeds abroad, passing old canine friends without a sniff or wag, yet eying interlopers scornfully. On these he would fall at the slightest wink of provocation, and leave his memory marked upon their hides; so his name became a wonder unto other dogs.
Semiramis was not of Habal’s stamp, nor did she boast of her deeds abroad; yet still their memory beckoned, till her soul was full with a great unrest. At home she was idle, grieving for the things so changed, wandering through a house made desolate by the flight of those she loved. Old friends would come—gaunt shepherds, gazing on her beauty with the eyes of cattle that rove the hills—to linger, then slink away to hide the passion in their hearts.
“Home! Home!” she cried. “No longer is it home, for the dove hath flown, and my lord is not beside me in the gloom!”
Through the hush of night there were whispers on the wind—relentless ghosts that glide from the outer world to mock us with their sighs; to bring on their garments odours of the days that were, and the hopes of other days to come; to haunt us, till we harken to their murmurings and know not peace.
They called to Semiramis, these whispers, in the name of love, whence Menon seemed to stretch his arms in loneliness. They called through a shattered fringe of Kurds who screamed and struggled under hoof and heel; they called in the tongues of madmen whirling torches round and round, their evil faces yellow in the flame and smoke. They called her to deeds of arms—to work—to power. Oh, Ishtar, if she might ride under whip and spur to Nineveh, and pit her wits against the King! To play the thirsty game, with life the stake, its hazard on a single cast! Ah, if she might glide, as these ghosts were gliding through the night, far out beyond the rim of solitude, to the teeming battle-ground of hearts and men!
For days she wandered, silent, yearning to be gone, while the faithful Huzim dogged her every step. His master had admonished him to watch his charge with a winkless eye, lest spirit override her reason and tempt her to a recklessness. It troubled Huzim thus to be a jailer to one he loved, yet the master’s will was law, so the Indian followed ever on her trail.
Semiramis knew no peace nor rest, and at last she came to Dagon’s temple down beside the lake, to lay her sorrows on the fish-god’s knees and ask a sign.
All day, all night, she prayed, yet when the dawn came oozing from out the east, the face of Dagon was as a face of stone. The suppliant sat upon the temple steps, weary, warring with despair. With listless eyes she watched a beetle crawling at her feet, then, of a sudden, hope rose up and lived. She grasped the bug between her thumb and finger, holding it above the surface of the lake, while she closed her teeth as a gambler might at the whirl of his last remaining coin.
“Now this,” she murmured to herself, “shall tell me of Dagon’s will. If the beetle swim, I go! If he sink, I rot in Ascalon!”
She cast it in, smiling, for she knew right well that the bug must float, yet turning her back lest Dagon mark her knowledge of such things. For an instant the victim struggled pleasingly with leg and wing, while the smile of Semiramis broadened in its reach, to flicker, to fade, to die. A monster carp came upward with a rush. One snap, and the tempting morsel disappeared, thus making the fish-god’s judgment clear, beyond the very hem of Redemption’s robe.
Semiramis sat upon the temple’s steps, her chin upon her hands, her eyes on a wheel of ripples that widened away from its hub of swift calamity. She pondered long, her thoughts like cats in trees, with Habal barking furiously below.
“He sank,” she sighed. “Of a certainty he sank. I may not make it otherwise. And yet”—she paused to steal a glance at Dagon’s face—”and yet the fool did swim for a little space. Mayhap—” Again she paused, then spread her hands and raised her eyes appealingly. “In truth my beetle proveth naught at all. For a space he swam. For a space he sank. Dagon, Dagon, what meanest thou in this?”
No answer came. Once more she pondered, her fair brow puckered with the lines of deep perplexity; till, presently, the truant colour raced to her cheek again and her great eyes lit with the flame of understanding.
“Ah!” she breathed. “Ah, now I see. Thou meanest, O wise and radiant one, that, sink or swim, must I do this thing. What!” she cried, “hast thou, thyself, not said it? And, lo! I am but a weak and foolish woman in thy power. Ah, Dagon, Dagon, thou art a crafty god, indeed!”
In haste Semiramis left the temple door, and, singing loudly, tripped toward her home. Her god had sent a sign. She was free to journey now as her heart desired. Free! And yet, a doubt came prowling after her—a watchful, sleepless doubt that dogged her steps, even as Huzim slipped upon her trail from his hiding-place behind a stone. On the hill she paused, to mutter to herself in a soothing tone:
“The sign is clear. Did I linger on in Ascalon, some evil might befall me, even as that carp arose to snatch my beetle in his greedy maw. Did Menon know, he would urge that I fly to him without delay.”
She went her way and took up her song again, but paused to reason with a small brown toad that hopped across her path.
“Little beast,” said she, “thou comest as a warning of some ugly chance, the which, I confess, hath filled me with the juice of fear. Therefore will I hasten out of Syria in time.”
She walked around the toad with care, and, singing, journeyed on till she reached the house where the old dove Simmas dwelt in days gone by. At the door she lingered, ere she raised the latch, for one last argument in the cause of a heart’s desire.
“Now Dagon,” she reflected, grieving at the thought, “is in truth a careless god in the matter of his signs. Had Ishtar cursed me with a simple mind, I might have misinterpreted, alas!”
Semiramis then slept, to dream of Menon till the shades of night wore on, and in her dreams found weightier reasons which she laid on the fish-god’s judgment scale.
“Huzim,” she asked, when the Indian had brought the evening meal, “did I seek escape from Ascalon, what course would thy duty run?”
“Mistress,” he answered her, “like an arrow in my heart is the thought of force with one whose happiness is held above my hopes of peace; yet the master’s will is the master’s will, and a servant must obey.”
“Ah,” she nodded thoughtfully. “Ah, I see! Yet if, by chance, I slipped away in the gloom of night, as I did at Azapah—what then?”
The Indian cast a troubled gaze upon the floor, and heaved a sigh.
“I would follow, mistress, as before I followed, till I fell because of weariness.”
“Then follow!” said Semiramis, “for I go to join my lord at Nineveh—and to tickle the lion’s nose with straws.”