THE SORROWS OF A KING
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
King Ninus, lord of all Assyria, lay cursing in his royal litter, while slaves and attendants bore him northward on the banks of the Euphrates. Presently they left their course, struck eastward till they reached the Tigris and again turned north, whence, with many rests and long, forced marches in the cool of night, the stricken King at length was placed upon his couch at Nineveh.
Full many a grievous matter rode upon the monarch’s mind, and the pale attending leech wrought vainly to quell his patient’s fever, one augmented by a sleepless, boiling rage within. By day the King would fret; by night he rioted throughout his dreams and found no rest.
First there was his wound, a ragged, half-healed gash, laid open by a lion’s claw and running from a point beneath his arm-pit to his hip. It was not the wound itself, nor the pain thereof, which fired the hunter’s wrath, but rather the truth that he, Ramân-Nirari—the greatest hunter since beasts and hunters were—should miss his kill and seek his life in flight. Of witnesses there were only three: Shidur-Kam, a warrior whom the King might trust to entrench his tongue behind his teeth, and a slave who was safer still, for Ninus had cast his body into the Euphrates; but, then, there was a girl—a red-haired girl—who perched in the boughs of a citron tree and laughed as the King sped underneath, a wounded lion leaping at his horse’s haunch.
At another time the monarch might have held this face, and the echo of a bubbly laugh, in pleasing memory; yet raillery, directed at a royal personage in the stress of flight, begets a recollection of a different breed. So the mocking laughter haunted Ninus through all the day and caused him to wake at night and grind his teeth in fury.
“Argol,” said he, to the faithful leech beside him, “give order that a thousand horse repair to the region of our lion hunt. Command them to scour the country round about in a circuit of thirty leagues and bring me every red-haired wench they may chance to find. By Gibil’s flame! I have a pressing need of them!”
The leech sighed sadly, tapped upon a gong of bronze, then waited in silence till an officer strode in, saluted, and sank upon his knees. The order given and the soldier gone, Argol administered a sleeping draught and sat once more at his weary post.
Yet the King slept not, for still another matter lay heavy on his heart. There was a certain man called Azet, the venerable seer who had prophesied with lies. Before the hunt he had opened the carcasses of seven cranes, finding in the entrails of each and all an omen of success. Full thirty beasts, said Azet, should the King o’ercome, returning unto Nineveh triumphant and sound of limb. Was not this prophet, then, to blame for the ills which had come to pass? Wherefore should he prophesy unto evil ends, or cause witch-women to laugh from the boughs of citron trees? Could virtue not be found in the vitals of seven sacred cranes? or was this holy man but a monster and a fool?
The King’s dark brow grew darker still with troublous thought, as he questioned his leech for the hundredth time in fretful tones:
“Argol, good Argol, tell me, I pray thee, man, how in the name of Asshur may I teach this wretch to mend his auguries?”
“My lord,” the leech replied, as he raised his drooping lids and gazed out dreamily to where the Tigris flowed, “my lord, the breath of man ariseth from his breast, but in his throat are shaped his evil prophecies.”
“Eh—what?” the King demanded. “What manner of speech is this, and how doth it run with Azet and his seven cranes?”
“Hang him, my lord,” said Argol, drowsily, and turned away.
A slow smile lit the features of the King, while for a space he pondered, plucking at his coverlet; then, summoning an officer, he gave an order in a weak but cheerful voice, at the same time causing his couch to be removed to a shaded spot upon the palace roof. Here, with his watch-worn leech beside him, he could lie at ease and feast his eyes on the glory of completed Nineveh. Across his terraced gardens where fountains sparkled in the sun, he could see the temple of Asshur and of Ishtar upon their hills; likewise the temple of the fire-god Gibil, above whose dome a wreath of smoke hung low, belched upward from the flames beneath. He could see his streets, his marts, his mighty gates and the tawny plains beyond where the Tigris and the Khusur ran. He could see his wall—that shield of his heart’s desire—which made his city a fortress against the world; yet the thoughts of Ninus were not for walls and shields.
He watched a thousand horsemen pass the western gate and gallop swiftly down the river bank, then disappear from Nineveh for the space of many days. The chief was a man of little love beyond his sword and steed, one, who would give short shift to devils with flame-hued hair, and the heart of the King was glad.
Of a sudden a tumult rose from the streets below, while a concourse gathered, and a sound of weeping ascended to the palace roof. Through the surging throng a band of soldiers fought their way, leading the prophet Azet toward the wall and beating back the populace with the butts of their heavy spears.
The western gate was spanned by a monster arch, on the shoulder of which sat the highest tower of all, and thither the soldiers led their victim by a winding stair. When at last they appeared on the turret’s edge, a wail of anguish rang out afresh, while the multitude gazed upward, swarming to and fro.
“Now truly,” chuckled Ninus as he watched, “this fellow hath a wondrous following, who, because of their ignorance, grieve at things they may not understand.”
From the turret the soldiers thrust a wooden beam; from the end thereof they hanged the prophet by a noose, and, according to a writing set above the gate, “The prophecies of Azet ceased to be throughout the land.”
Argol then bound his master’s wound in a healing salve, and the sufferer straightway slept for many hours; on waking, his fever had departed utterly, so he mended in body and in mind. He appointed another prophet, one Nakir-Kish, a wise and observing man whose promises of good and ill were the like of kites, the strings thereof being held within his hand till his eye had marked the temper of all heavenly winds. Thus Nakir-Kish endured.
King Ninus now sent for Bobardol, a sculptor of high renown, the same who had carven a famous bull that had, in all, five legs. This extra limb might at first seem strange and at odds with Nature’s own design; yet, even so, it had its marked advantages. An observer gazing on this masterpiece—no matter where he stood—might always perceive four legs; “And that,” said Bobardol, “is Art.” So Ninus was pleased, and retained the sculptor in his service.
The King gave order for a monster stele, whereon should be carven a scene from the lion hunt, the monarch being pictured, not in wild retreat, but faced about and causing great discomfiture to a mighty foe. True, the attitudes of the King of Assyria and the king of beasts would be quite reversed, yet Ninus was a god whose front was more imposing than his back; moreover it would have been as pictured had Azet not prophesied with lies. Shall a King be held to blame where foolish servants err through ignorance? Not so!
The sculptor Bobardol now set to work, while Ninus commanded a sumptuous feast to be prepared, whereby he might celebrate his triumphs in the chase. His soldiers and populace should pass in lines through the palace hall and gaze in awe upon this unveiled tablet, set up to the glory of the high lord Asshur—and to the glory of the King.
While waiting this work of art, and at the same time resting so that his wound might heal, Ninus was wont to recline within his litter which was borne along the top of the city wall. Here he could watch at will, or give directions in the order of another enterprise which dwelt in his mind and heart. Three years had now passed by since his warriors turned tail from Zariaspa; and the time approached when Ninus must seal his promises to rake the ashes of this city into sacks and with them feed the waters of the sea.
The army encamped within and without the walls of Nineveh was twice so great as that which had failed in the former siege, and Ninus gave much thought to the plans of his second war. On the plain a wall had been erected, in height and thickness measuring that of Zariaspa, and here the Assyrians practiced methods of assault. Great carts they had, with platforms twenty cubits above their wheels, propelled by slaves who were hidden underneath, while above the platforms ladders rose and slanted toward the wall. Up these the men-at-arms would clamber rapidly, to grapple with defenders at the top; and so great was their zeal in this mimic war that many lives were lost because of it. There were tall machines which worked on pivots, whose swinging buckets could set a score of men upon a parapet; there were towers faced by armor-plates of brass, from the crests of which wide bridges might be flung, while warriors swarmed across to engage the enemy. Huge catapults were built, of new design and hurling power, some casting single rocks, and others to rake a battlement with a volley of smaller stones. Full many a strange machine of cunning workmanship was thus devised and stored against departure, when the King would once more lead his armies to the East.
In the lowgrounds and on the rolling slopes beyond the river Khusur which flows between the mounds of Koyunjik and Nebbi Yunas, myriads of oxen and beasts of burden were set to graze upon the pasture-lands. These had been employed in the building up of Nineveh, and now were resting for a further need, for their final strength would be utilized in hauling the traps of war through desert lands and toilsome ways, on spongy forest roads to the hills beyond, up heavy mountain slopes to gorges between the peaks of Hindu-Kush. Thence they would scramble down into the plains of Bactria, to become at last the food for a hungry host; and thus the cattle served unto many ends.
The waiting army was under sole command of Menon, whose heart was now divided between two loves. To prepare for war would have joyed him vastly, except for his vow to wed Sozana when Zariaspa fell before the King; and this he might not do because of Semiramis, of whom he dreamed as resting peacefully in the valley of Ascalon. Had Ninus spoken aught to him of the red-haired imp who laughed from the bough of a citron tree, Menon’s heart might then have borne a double weight; but the happening was not that quality of jest on which a monarch is pleased to regale his chiefs.
It chanced on a certain day that Menon was summoned to the palace for a council with the King, and, striding through the gardens, he came with suddenness upon Sozana, who sat alone. Fair was she, with the beauty of a childish maid; yet in her green simar, and the silvery veil which was wound about her throat, Sozana was a princess, from her raven hair to the jeweled sandals on her tiny feet.
Since returning from Syria Menon had found no opportunity for speech with her, and now he came forward joyously, his hands outstretched. At the sound of footsteps Sozana had risen from her seat, but, on seeing him, she gave a little cry of disappointment and of pain, flushed crimson and turned away without an answer to his greeting; and when he sought to question her concerning such treatment of an old-time friend, she sank upon a bench, to weep as though her heart would break.
For a moment Menon stood irresolute, then, as he began to speak again, a hand was laid upon his shoulder, and, turning, he looked into the eyes of Memetis the Egyptian, a youth whom he loved as he might have loved his mother’s son, but who now refused his greeting coldly, spurning the proffered hand and placing his own behind his back.
“How now,” asked Menon, “is this the manner of Memetis to his friends?”
“Nay,” returned Memetis, frowning as he spoke; “true friends I greet in love and tenderness; the false may rest with Hathor ere I take their hands.”
Then it came upon Menon that Memetis and Sozana knew of the mandate of the King, and were bitter in their thoughts of one who came between them and their happiness.
“Memetis,” the Assyrian asked, “is it, then, to the walls of Zariaspa that thine eyes are turned, fearing lest a friend hath juggled with thy trust as a traitor might?”
The Egyptian’s black eyes glowed in anger which he vainly strove to check, while his fingers played about the hilt of a dagger at his belt.
“Aye,” he answered bitterly, “to the walls of Zariaspa do I turn mine eyes, for with their fall falls every hope which Isis dangled before my foolish heart. And thou!” he cried, “the false! The treacherous! who would tear Sozana from mine arms, aye, even as the hawk would swoop upon a nest of doves!”
Menon strove to speak, but the Egyptian would not harken to his words. The Assyrian faced Sozana, stretching forth his hand, but Memetis sprang between them, drawing his dagger, and in a low, fierce whisper spoke his wrath:
“Lay but a finger on this maid, or speak her name again, and as Osiris liveth, will I take thy life!”
Menon looked into the lover’s eyes, and slowly spread his arms.
“Strike!” he murmured sadly. “Strike, and learn from other lips than mine that Memetis is a fool.”
He waited, but the Egyptian made no move, because of the sorrow on the face of one who had been a cherished friend.
“And dost thou dream,” asked Menon, pointing to the girl who wept beside him, “that I would willingly bring sorrow to this child? Nay, listen, both, then judge me when ye know the truth.”
The Egyptian’s hand sank down beside him, and his blade was tossed upon the earth.
“Speak on,” he begged, “but, oh, my friend, I pray thee show me no mirage of hope that melteth when a thirsty traveller would drink.”
So Menon sat between them on the bench and told them of Semiramis. He told of the artifice by which he sought to gull the King, in a firm belief that Zariaspa would not fall; and yet, should chance prove otherwise, he would fly with his wife into Arabia, where Prince Boabdul offered them a safe retreat. He spoke of his life in Syria, of the wonder of his love for her whom he left behind; and as the tale went on Sozana dried her tears and held the teller’s hand in both her own, for she and Memetis knew at last that Menon betrayed no trust in him, and their hearts were glad because of a hope restored.
“Forgive,” Memetis pleaded as his friend arose; and Menon smiled, bent down and kissed Sozana as a brother might, then left them with a heavy heart to seek the King.
Ninus still reclined upon his couch—for his hurt was yet unhealed—and rested beneath the shade of a canopy on the palace roof, whiles he waited in impatience for Menon’s coming till the hour was past. Now it is not good to linger when a wounded monarch waits, so Ninus fretted, combing at his beard as was his wont when matters troubled him or anger rose.
“How now,” he asked, when Menon came at length with a hasty step, “am I the master, or do I sleep, to awaken presently and find myself a servant—_thou_ the King?”
“Forgive, my lord,” begged Menon, falling on his knee; “King Ninus sleepeth not. ’Twas the servant who drowsed beside the way. In the garden below I chanced upon Sozana with whom I have held no speech since—”
“Ah!” said the King, his anger fading, while a smile began to play about his mouth. “So the eagle needs must wait when pigeons peck at love. Speak on, my son.”
Menon flushed and cast his gaze upon the floor.
“I—I sat with her, my lord, and spoke of many things, taking no thought of how the moments flew, till—”
“Hark!” said Ninus, as he raised his hand. “Can it be that I hear Sozana singing from the garden there?” Menon listened, nodded, and the King went on: “Strange!” he mused. “For days she hath tasted lightly of her food, and sighed and drooped her head; yet now at thy coming she hath straightway plumed herself, and pipeth a saucy song. Look thou, master fox, what miracle is this?”
Menon flushed again and smiled a foolish smile; yet he answered cunningly, with a lingering grip on the slippery skin of truth:
“My lord, I—I whispered into the maiden’s ear.”
“Oho!” laughed Ninus. “Now by my beard, I’d give a goodly sum to learn thine art. But come, what chanced to be the burden of this pretty speech?”
“As to that,” said Menon boldly, in a manner which ever pleased his lord, “my whisper is a secret in the keeping of discretion’s tongue and the maiden’s ear alone.”
“U’u’m!” mused Ninus. “How many men-at-arms are now prepared to take the field against our good friend Oxyartes?”
For a space the two discussed their plans for a second war against the Bactrians, then Menon saluted his master’s hand and took his leave. Alone, the King lay thinking on his war, when of a sudden his thought was disarranged by the notes of another song, no longer Sozana’s voice, but that of a man, deep, tender, and pleasing to the ear:
Like Love is the fragile Lotus bud,
When kissed by the gleaming, golden flood
Of light from shining Ra;
It blooms ’neath the warm, caressing beams
On the Nile of Life, and its blossom seems
To shine as a milk-white star.
But lo! when the fateful season turns,
And the tawny desert glows and burns,
Shimmering, parched, and dry—
As the vanquished foe to the victor stoops,
All faded and shriveled the Lotus droops—
And, withered, it falls to die!
“Strange!” mused Ninus, combing at his beard. “The Egyptian sitteth with Sozana in the gardens down below and singeth a song of love; albeit I mark that his song be sad…. Yet—why should he sing at all, the fool! Doth he, too, whisper into the maiden’s ear, and—”
The monarch paused abruptly, to call to his faithful leech in a tone of petulance:
“Argol! come stroke my side in the region of my wound; for I tell thee, man, it itcheth damnably.”