THE SKIN OF A ONE-EYED LION
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
The throne-hall of the palace was of lofty pitch—and of spacious depth and width. In its rear, through arches, lay an open portico, while beyond could be seen the Valley of the Tigris and the reaches of the river on its journey to the sea. Within were carven pillars of marble and of stone brought hither by utmost toil from foreign lands; likewise other pillars of malachite, of silver, and of hammered gold, draped with hangings of purple and embroidered stuffs from the treasure-stores of far Phoenicia. There were curious arms, the trophies of chase and war, rare gifts from conquered princes sent to Nineveh through love or fear, and the mounted heads and skins of beasts which had fallen before the King’s own spear and shafts.
The entrance was set with chiselled lions, and wingéd bulls in miniature of those which guarded the western gate, while the walls were lined with steles, whereon were pictured the battles of the King, his deeds of prowess in the hunt, his sacrifices at the altars of his gods.
On the ceiling stretched a tessellated emblem of all the deities wrought cunningly with bits of tinted stone and precious gems, a work of art so fabulous in price that even the spendthrift Ninus drew his breath when the cost thereof was known to him. In the centre sat the great lord Asshur in his godly robes, his breast adorned with the wingéd disk designed in pearls and sapphires on a base of lapis-lazuli. Before high Asshur King Ninus knelt, obedient to the heavenly will alone, while around them were grouped the lesser deities—Ramân hurling forth his lightning forks, Bel in his hornéd cap, red Gibil peering out through sacrificial flame and smoke, Bêlit princess of the dawn, Shala, Nebo, Ninêb, and Nerga of the chase, Shamashi-Ramân, father of the King—a heavenly litter of divinities, each dear to the heart of his special worshipper.
On a sumptuous throne sat Ninus, with Sozana at his side, for the queen had passed away ere Nineveh was complete; so now his daughter held the highest place in the monarch’s heart. The hall was thronged with chieftains, priests, and the king’s good friends. At the feet of Ninus sat Menon, and at his side the Arabian Prince, Boabdul Ben Hutt, whom the king had urged to grace his festival. There were kings of Tyre and Sidon, from beside the Sea of the Setting Sun, whose cities sent their caravans of tribute and of tax with muttered curses trailing after them; and likewise came the sons of Canaan, giant Khatti chiefs still restless beneath their yoke, princes of Babylon, Syrians, lords of the desert and the sea; grim mountaineers who had fought like rats in the caverns of their rocky homes; governors, rulers, and a swarm of wives and daughters of these men, all now unveiled at the mandate of the King.
From behind a pillar Memetis looked upon Sozana’s face, his hope an oasis whence his soul might drink the waters of his love; yet now must he sip lest Ninus mark his thirst and be aggrieved thereat. So, with his eyes, the Egyptian looked out upon the throng, yet with his heart he saw one maid alone.
A goodly gathering it was, in rich attire, in armor and robes of state, the warriors of a hundred wars, the proudest beauty of the court, assembled now to view the monster tablet carven in honor of the King. It was newly set within the wall, hidden from sight by crimson draperies, and on either side stood the sculptor Bobardol and the High Priest Nakir-Kish, the one to draw the cloth aside, the other to bless the stele in the name of Asshur.
A breathless silence fell upon the courtiers; King Ninus gave a sign, and the sculptor drew the draperies aside. On the stele was pictured in bas-relief a wondrous exploit of the King, who, mounted on a rearing charger, battled with a king of beasts. This lion was springing upon the withers of the steed, seeking to drag the hunter from his seat with teeth and claws, while Ninus gripped its throat and crushed its skull with a haft of his broken spear.
A triumph of art it was, bespeaking valor spirited and rare, rather than exactness of the facts concerning this glorious happening, and a murmur of admiration rose to every lip because of the daring monarch and the skill of Bobardol.
Below an inscription told the story of the deed, in language employed by Assyria’s Kings, wherein they laid aside the robes of modesty and spake for the world to hear:
“I, Ramân-Nirari, son of Shamashi-Ramân and mightiest of all Assyria’s Kings, by the will of Asshur, lord of earth and sky, fared forth to conquer lions in this the twentieth year of my resplendent reign. Much game I slew, my horse bestriding, likewise upon my feet alone with arrows and with spear. Thus it came to pass that I, Ninus, to whom no other may compare in skill and lack of dread, joined battle with a mighty, one-eyed lion in the thickets along the Euphrates. Terrible in rage was he, this lion, because of the wounds I gave, roaring till my servants fled in fear away. Yet I, alone, took hold upon his throat and smote him thrice, in that his roaring ceased and went out of his belly with the death of a so great beast.”
“To the high lord Asshur praise! To Ninus praises greater still, for Asshur watched while Ninus wrought the deed!”
Amid rejoicings the stele was blessed by the High Priest Nakir-Kish, while the wine cup circled and a chant was heard from a train of hidden priests—a chant which now was taken up in the temples throughout vast Nineveh, and the gods smelt sacrifice from a thousand altar stones. A jingling tinkle then arose, when from right and left two lines of dancers tripped into the hall, to bow before the King, to rise and glide in rhythmic steps through the measures of their dance. A score they were, of beauties picked from many lands and climes, arrayed in gauzy robes, rich head dress and bangles of bronze and gold. They swayed to a pace of slow monotony, with the sad, melodious strain of citherns and of flutes of quaint design; then, suddenly, at a crash of cymbals, the dancers woke to life, whirling, tossing high their arms, leaping through a swift, bewildering maze, with gleaming bodies, crimson lips and pleading eyes. Louder and louder rang the music’s call to passion and to love, while faster and faster the pink feet fell in velvet kisses on the floor of tinted brick; till, at last, with a scurrying rush, the maidens left the hall, while a shout of applause and noise of clapping hands rolled after them down the corridors.
A silence followed, wherein the courtiers waited eagerly for a signal that the feast was spread, when an officer stepped toward the throne and bowed before the King.
“Thy pardon, lord,” he faltered, “but a woman clamoreth at the palace door. She would enter without delay and will not be denied.”
So strange was the man’s demeanor that all who heard him marveled at its cause, yet Ninus spoke impatiently:
“Bid her begone, lest my servants scourge her from the city gates!”
The officer, with downcast eyes, retreated toward the door where every eye was turned in sharp expectancy of a stranger unbidden to the feast. From without the audience heard a murmur of protest cut short by a firm, imperious command; then the officer came slinking back into the hall.
“Lord,” he quaved, trembling before the King, “thy high commands I gave, bidding the woman depart in peace, yet—yet she will not go.”
“Will not!” King Ninus roared. “By Gibil’s breath, what manner of wench is this to defy me in my teeth?”
“Lord,” the soldier stammered in confusion, while his cheeks went white and red by turns, “lord, no mortal wench is she, but a spirit from the outer world, so fair to look upon that—”
A roar of laughter checked him, and even Ninus joined therein, yet presently the King spoke sternly, striving to hide his smile:
“Go, ape, and bring her hither! Yet mark you, man; if she be not fairer than any woman of my land, I swear to hang you from the highest roof in Nineveh!”
A titter arose and the blushing officer retired, to presently return with—not one stranger in his wake—but three. In the lead a woman strode, yet such a woman as the court of Ninus had never looked upon. She was clothed in a skirt of lamb’s wool whose border touched her knee, her limbs encased in doe skin lashed with thongs; across her breast was flung a leopard’s silky hide, and head dress had she none save a crown of flame-hued hair. In her hand she held a hunting spear, and at her back was slung her bow, together with its quiver and a sheaf of shafts. Behind her walked an Indian, of lowly mien but of mighty strength, who, besides his spear and bow, bore a half dried lion’s skin, while at his heels a shepherd’s dog came swaggering in as though the palace were some kennel of a lesser dog—and, strangely, the woman’s bearing seemed the same.
On the assembled court the effect was varied and most strange. The women raised their brows in outward scorn of this stranger and her garb, yet in their secret hearts they knew a rival who outstripped them far; therefore they hated her and yearned that some swift calamity befall; but their husbands looked with a kindlier gaze. The warriors, the statesmen, aye, even the priests themselves, for a moment stood in silent awe, each face revealing what each soul would hide—wonder, worship, base desire—for the passions of men are tuned to divers keys when beauty strikes the chords.
To Menon the woman came as a fevered dream from which he longed to wake and know that she was safe in Ascalon; yet the dog was there—and Huzim—Huzim who looked into his master’s eyes and dropped his own. It was true! She had come into the lion’s very lair, and the voice of Fear cried out aloud that Folly had claimed its own.
“Shammuramat!” breathed Menon, leaning limp and white on the shoulder of Boabdul. “May the gods lend aid, where I may give her none!”
“Courage, friend!” the Arab whispered, “for in this, as in all things, my scimitar is brother to thy sword.”
The King leaned back upon his throne, with folded arms, with eyelids narrowed into slits beneath his frown, with fingers that combed his beard, while the heart of him rejoiced. At last it was she! The red-haired devil who had perched in a citron tree and mocked him as he fled before a wounded lion. Ah, now should she pay the price of laughter in the coin of tears!
A hush had fallen on the company, each waiting with bated breath for the King to speak; but the King spoke not. At length Semiramis, wearying of the pause, stepped forward without the royal word of sufferance.
“My lord,” said she, and pointed to her servant and the gift he bore, “I bring a lion’s skin from the thickets of the Euphrates. A mighty one-eyed lion which—”
“Hold!” cried Ninus, leaping to his feet, his hard hands clenched, his neck veins standing out to a wrathful rush of blood. For a moment he stood, regarding the woman with a dark, malignant frown, then he turned to a man-at-arms beside his throne: “Go down with this wench to the keep below and let her taste the lash!”
To those who heard, this deep injustice came like a thunderbolt, for naught had the woman done save to bear a present to the King and speak without his leave. A murmur of protest sounded throughout the gathering, and Menon half arose with his hand upon his sword; yet the Arab checked him by a warning word and a grip upon his arm, for the time was not yet ripe to place a life in jeopardy.
The man-at-arms, obedient to his master’s will, strode forward and laid his hand upon the prisoner’s arm; but at his touch Semiramis took a backward step, then with her doubled fist she struck him fair upon the apple of his throat. With a grunt of pain the fellow sprawled full length, his armor clanging on the floor, while Huzim lowered his spear point threateningly and Habal crouched beside the prostrate man, his lips rolled back, his eye upon his mistress, waiting for a sign.
Again fell silence, to linger till one might count a score, while all looked on in dumb amaze at this queen who dared the rage of Ninus, meeting his eye with an eye that knew not fear and his scowl with a reckless smile.
“My lord,” she began once more, her low voice smooth and even as though the stretching of a warrior on his back were but a pleasing courtesy, “my lord, I bring a lion’s skin from the thickets of the Euphrates. A mighty one-eyed lion which leaped upon thy horse’s neck and—”
“Have done!” stormed Ninus. “What witch’s foolery is this of lions in the thickets of the Euphrates?” He paused to laugh derisively. “Perchance it was even thou who slew the brute—thou with thy puny might.”
“Puny?” smiled Semiramis, pointing to the fallen man-at arms. “Nay, ask this grimy dog who dared to pollute me with his touch. And as for the lion, good my lord, I have his skin. Mayhap I slew him, and again mayhap he laid aside his coat in the manner of a wrestler, eager for another bout with Ninus, who, alas, receiveth gifts with but a sorry grace.” She smiled once more and again took up her interrupted speech: “My lord, I bring a lion’s skin—”
“Peace! Peace!” cried the King, then turned to glare about him savagely. A laugh had broken from some hidden soldier’s throat, and, as a flame is kindled from a spark, so mirth ran riot up and down the hall.
The King, whose temper had been weakened by his wound, was placed in a grievous pass. Should he suffer this witch to tell her damning tale of disaster in the chase, it would brand the royal hunter as a braggart and a liar—a case far out of tune with a king’s desire to be thought a god. On the other hand, should he check her speech by force, there were those who would hold displeasure for a deed they could not understand. Therefore Ninus swallowed down his spleen and sought to meet guile with guile.
“Princess,” he laughed, as he once more took his seat, “with anger assumed did I test the mettle of a huntress at my court, and my heart is glad because of the spirit she hath shown. Speak then, fearing naught, and if thy tale prove true and pleasing to our ears, demand what thou wilt from Ninus in exchange for this one-eyed lion’s skin.”
Semiramis bowed low and was about to speak, when the monarch checked her with a lifted hand.
“Nay, a moment,” he begged. “Now perchance I might tell this tale myself, and thereby lose no shred of its palatable meat.” He smiled to his court amusedly and once more bent his glance upon Semiramis: “A lion’s skin is borne me from the thickets along the lower Euphrates—a one-eyed lion, fierce and strong, that leapt upon my charger’s neck and pressed me hurtfully. I, Ninus, in my terror of a beast so strange, then flung my weapons down, turned tail and fled for safety in my distant camp, whilst thou—all praise to Asshur for the deed—came after me and slew my enemy.” Again the monarch laughed and stretched his hand toward the huntress: “Speak, pretty one, is this the tale of Ninus and the one-eyed lion?”
The King, in painting with a brush of truth, had spread his colors artfully, for it came to him that to steal the thunder from an accusing tongue was better far than a shield of defensive lies. So the courtiers whispered among themselves and smiled at the pleasing humor of their Song. This joyed the monarch vastly, for his vanity was large, and now that his wit had given him a vantage ground, he turned to Semiramis, ready for attack, but was ill prepared for his subtle enemy.
On her face came a look of childish wonderment and pain, while her hands were raised in protest of a thought so wrongful to the King. She stood with her back toward the stele which pictured the lion hunt, yet, on entering the hall, her eye had marked it, and memory served her well.
“Ah, no, my lord,” she answered timidly, as she slowly shook her head, “of a truth thy words are the words of jest, for I saw thy battle from the bough of a citron tree wherein I had climbed in my wish to gaze upon the King.”
She paused to drop her eyes, but raised them again at a smile and a word from Assyria’s lord.
“Speak,” said the King, “and fear not, for we fain would hear this tale.
“O radiant one,” returned Semiramis, “small skill have I in the telling of a deed so great, and yet each day my prayers of praise go up to Ishtar, in that I saw this glorious battle of a god.”
The King breathed easy and ceased to comb his beard, and Semiramis began her story, of the hunt. At first her voice was low, melodious and calm, yet presently it rose to the fevered pitch of an orator whose audience is but a harp beneath his hand, each string a heart to thrill and quiver at a master-touch. Her listeners seemed to see the hunter charge the king of beasts, his stout spear shivering with the impact of the blow. They heard the lion’s roar of fury as he leaped on the shoulder of the rearing steed, to tear at his enemy, while the two tossed to and fro in a grip of death. They heard the rip of armored garments at the stroke of raking claws, while the blood of Ninus dyed his vestments red and his arm rained blows upon the skull of a maddened beast. They saw its mighty jaws relax, the tawny body heave in agony, to drop to the earth at last in death. Then the conqueror strove to staunch his wounds and, failing, rode for succor to his distant camp.
Semiramis ceased to speak, and those who had listened drew a long, deep sigh of wonder at the King’s escape and at her who told the tale so truthfully. King Ninus likewise heaved a sigh, but of peace and sweet content, for never since his reign began had he looked upon so glorious a liar.
“Behold!” cried Nakir-Kish, and pointed to the stele.
Semiramis turned, to stare in seeming wonder at the carven miracle. One fluttering hand was drawn across her eyes; her lips moved slowly, giving forth no sound, and all save two who watched her felt that here, indeed, was truth. King Ninus raised his hand to check a tribute of applause, and spoke in a voice of gentleness.
“What more?” he asked. “How came it to pass that a woman beareth the lion’s skin to Nineveh?”
Semiramis spread her hands in the manner of one who does a deed too small for the waste of words.
“O mighty one,” she answered simply, “of a truth my tale is told. When the beast lay dead I descended from out my tree to watch while my servant removed its skin.” She took the lion’s hide from Huzim and laid it at the monarch’s feet. “My lord, I bring this simple token of my love to Nineveh, in trust that the King of all the world will grant my small desires.”
“Say on,” cried Ninus, “and by the sword of Asshur do I swear to make a just reward. Speak, then, for we harken to thy wish.”
Semiramis spoke not. She raised her eyes to his in the wondering innocence of a little child and smiled.
“Nay, lord, why now should I name desires which Ninus in his wisdom knoweth well?”
“True,” returned the monarch thoughtfully, once more combing at his beard and wondering if some trap were being laid, “true, and yet ’twere well to name thy wish aloud, in that these my friends may ever bear a witness to the promise made. Speak, for Ninus heedeth.”
“Forgiveness!” begged Semiramis, kneeling upon the lion’s skin. “This, O Father of the Land, I ask alone.”
“Granted!” cried the King, “though I swear I know not—um—though thy sin be great or small.”
Semiramis pressed the fingers of the King against her lips, then, rising, turned with a joyous cry and flung herself into Menon’s arms.
A gasp of wonder rose from those who saw, while Menon flushed, and his friend Boabdul smiled. Sozana sought the eyes of Memetis with a furtive glance, but the King rose up in wrath.
“What now!” he demanded, in a voice which shook with passion, but Semiramis checked him with a laugh and stood before him holding Menon’s hand.
“Three years agone, as thou knowest well, my lord, he wedded me in Syria.”
“Eh—what!” cried the puzzled King. “In truth he is thy spouse?”
“Aye,” she nodded happily, “in defiance of his master’s will; and thought—the foolish boy—to blind the eyes of the Eagle of Assyria. Yet as for me, my lord, I laughed, for well I knew that the vanities of man must come to dust. What! I asked him, is thy master a fool whose eye can fathom naught beyond his nose? Nay, King Ninus is a god whose wisdom marketh the works of lesser men, and he smileth because of them. Therefore, since Ninus knoweth all, he will treasure up this jest till such a time as Menon cometh unto Nineveh, and will rally him in the sight of all the court. Speak then, O generous lord, that thy courtiers may laugh with thee.”
The monarch made no answer. He was like unto a man who stood between two ditches, each too wide to spring across, yet spring he must. To admit a knowledge of his governor’s disobedience, would mean forgiveness where the measure of his wrath was fain to fall; and yet denial stamped him, not as a high, far-seeing god, but a mortal fool whose vision ceased at the tip of his royal nose. So Ninus pondered thoughtfully.
“How now, my lord,” asked Semiramis with her witch’s smile, “in truth dids’t thou not know of this joyous happening from the first?”
“Aye,” growled Ninus, savagely, “I knew it—from the first.”