THE TURN OF A WOMAN’S TONGUE
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
For many days the mind of the King was troubled by a fractious mood. He strove to nurse an anger against Semiramis, yet, even as he brooded, his thought would trail away from the wrong she had put upon him, and linger on the witchery of the woman’s eyes.
“Heh!” he muttered, savagely. “This imp is not an imp to be forgotten in a day!”
There were hours wherein he was prone to pass the matter by, to forgive these lovers who had balked his will by a wit more subtle than his own; yet moments would come when he longed to strip her shoulders bare and watch the lash laid on; and in such a mood he caused her to be brought before him as he lolled in his garden in the noontide heat.
His couch had been set beside a fountain’s edge, beneath a trellaced arbor whereon a vine of Syria climbed, the great black grapes in clusters peeping from their leaves and set apart for the lips of the King alone. At his hand were a jeweled flagon and a dish of fruit on which he regaled himself from time to time as he waited for Semiramis, while at his head stood a eunuch who waved a fan of feathered plumes and watched lest a buzzing insect rest upon his monarch’s skin.
King Ninus, smiling grimly, watched Semiramis coming down a garden-path, and hardened his heart, for now, alone with her, he would speak his mind as befit the master of the world, and even learn, perchance, if her arrogance would break beneath the lash.
Then presently she stood before him, clothed in a white simar, whose edges were stitched with pale blue feathers of some tiny bird, crossed on her breast and caught by a silver girdle at her waist, the soft folds falling to her sandaled feet. Her hair was drawn from her temples in a drooping curve, confined with jeweled pins in a knot behind, and was covered by a gauzy veil, now lifted from her face in deference to the King.
In the eyes of Ninus she was fair beyond his fondest dreams of womankind, yet, withal, she galled him by her calm assurance of the power to charm. So, for a space he regarded her and spoke no word, till Semiramis, uninvited, perched herself upon a stool and inquired into the monarch’s health as though she had been his leech in charge.
“Woman,” growled the King, “knowest thou why I bring thee here—alone—where none may hear my words or thine?”
She smiled and looked into his eyes, striving to read the mind beneath, then plucked a bunch of his sacred grapes from the vine about her head and began to eat them thoughtfully.
“Mayhap my lord is weary of himself and willeth to be amused.”
The King half raised himself upon his arm in angry astonishment, for the impudence of both her act and speech was past belief. Serene and undismayed, she spoke as an equal, to him—the lord of all Assyria—and pecked at his royal fruit with the recklessness of some wanton bird. His mouth went open, while he vainly sought for words wherein to shape his wrath; yet, ere he could find them, Semiramis had poised a luscious grape between her thumb and finger and thrust it between his lips.
“Eat, my lord,” she murmured, smiling happily, “for never have I tasted fruit that lay more sweet upon my tongue.”
So the monarch, marveling at a weakness which he could not understand, devoured the grape and cast its skin into the fountain at his side.
“The grapes of Syria!” laughed Semiramis. “Ah, good my lord, their flavor, like unto a memory, leadeth me among my native hills—to the lake of Ascalon and the vine-clad temple crouching on its shore. If my lord would hunt, I can lead him where the beasts of prey are fierce and strong—where—”
“Nay,” said the King who stretched himself at ease upon his couch, “I would hear the story of Shammuramat.”
She bowed her head in obedience to his will, and, as before she had spoken to Menon on the steps of Dagon’s temple, so now again she told the tale of a babe that was nursed by doves, the while she fed her royal listener with grapes, and watched his anger fade. She told him of her home with Simmas, the father-dove, and of her other home in Azapah, whence she fled by night to join the battle of the Kurds.
The eyes of Ninus were sparkling now, his lips had twitched into a smile; and when he learned how the tax on Syria was raised, he laughed till the tears ran down and the pain in his wounded side aggrieved him sorely.
Was this the woman above whose back he longed to hear the whistle of a scourge? Nay, strive as he would, he failed to harbor wrath against Semiramis, yet in his breast there rankled still a wound to pride. Someone must suffer because of the disobedience; if not the woman, then justice must fall upon the man. Should Menon be blest above all other men—to enjoy the love of Ninus and also the love of one who was fit to mate with kings? Nay! By the necklace of the five great gods, this thing was not to be!
So Ninus nursed a grave displeasure against his general, while he lay with half closed eyes and hung upon the words of his general’s wife. He watched her lips, her eyes, the curve of her rounded breast, and the tiny veins on her velvet skin where the blood of passion drowsed. In the soil of his soul a seed was planted deep, and though he knew not its name, it would grow in might, a sturdy vine that twined its soft, insidious tendrils round a monarch’s heart, till it dragged him to the earth with the weight of its ripened fruit.
The palace gardens lazed in a silence of the noon-day’s heat that was broken only by the fountain’s gurgling song, the flutter of a bird that dropped to drink, and the voice of Semiramis, low, melodious, and sweet. The sounds on the city streets below were hushed in the hour of rest, and the lisp of the breeze was but a whisper among the palms. Farther and fainter the Syrian’s murmurs trailed away, till they seemed to the King the nameless voices of the night, when a hunter sprawls beside his camp-fire, listening, listening, while he slides from weariness to peace—and Ninus slept.
In his dreams he sat upon the throne at Nineveh and looked toward the east. His eye could pierce the snow-capped mountain range, and the rolling mists beyond which hung above the walls and citadel of Zariaspa. He saw his armies swarming up the battlements, to be beaten back and tumble headlong to the earth, while his foemen waved their bloodstained arms and shouted, though their shouts he could not hear. He strove to cry commands, but a hot wind blew them back into his throat, and the Bactrians leaped from their battlements to smite the children of Assyria. Yet, suddenly, they seemed to pause in fear, retreating to their walls before the charge of a single chariot which swept across the plain. It was drawn by three white steeds that fought with hoof and teeth, the taut reins held in the shield hand of Semiramis. Her locks, unbound, were streaming in the wind. The sun’s rays lit her golden armor with a flash of fire that burned through the ranks of her fleeing enemies. Straight at the walls she drove, while the King looked on and trembled in his dread. A stone from a catapult went hurtling out and burst upon her shield, but she laughed and urged her steeds. He saw her splash through a bloody moat, and, shuddering, closed his eyes; yet when he opened them again, lo! the city walls had crumbled into dust, and the chariot raced across great mounds of smoking wreck. Westward it came, through passes and defiles, up, up to the summit of the Hindu-Kush, to thunder down into the plains beyond, wheel swiftly to the west and speed for Nineveh! She was coming! Semiramis was coming! Ah, he could see her clearly now—her great eyes blazing from a splotch of red and gold—her white throat gleaming through a web of wind-blown hair. She passed the city gates, which burst before her rush, and drove full swing between long rows of wingéd bulls and crouching lions. The King could now discern the beat of hoofs, the ring of the driver’s voice as she urged her steeds, and the crack of her pitiless lash. He heard the shock of her chariot wheels when they struck the palace steps, and the splintering crash of Ramân’s statue as it overturned; then the massive doors of the hall fell in, while a queen of battle thundered over them, to check her panting steeds beside the throne.
“Bactria is no more!” she cried, and leaped to a seat beside the King. Then Ninus flung wide his arms, yet ere he felt her weight against his breast, a black cloud slid between them—and the lord of dreams awoke.
Semiramis had gone, and in her place stood Menon, waiting till the slumbers of his master ceased.
“My lord,” spoke Menon humbly, as he bent his knee, “the armies of Assyria lie beyond the wall, ready to march on Zariaspa at the King’s command.”
For many moments Ninus scowled upon this man who in days of old had been his friend in joy and grief, in peace, in victory and defeat.
“Then lead them forth at dawn,” he answered, sternly; “and mark thou, Menon, this for thine ear alone. On Zariaspa’s fall will hang the fate of those who disobey my will.”
Menon looked up swiftly, and the King spoke on:
“Thy deed in Syria hath grieved me sorely, the more because of a trust misplaced, and so thy hand shall dip no more in the fleshpots at thy master’s board. Go, then, without the love of Ninus which was like unto the love of a father for his son, and sue for pardon when our enemies shall cease to be.”
The monarch waved his hand as a sign that the conference was done, yet Menon lingered still.
“And she, my lord?” he asked, striving to quell the tremor in his tone. “If Bactria falleth, what then of my wife Shammuramat?”
The King lay still and pondered for a space, till at length his dark eyes glowed with the fires of craft. A plan was born wherein he might compass his own desires, and at the self same time hold Menon in the grip of unceasing diligence.
“Shammuramat,” said Ninus, smiling in his beard, “remaineth a hostage here at Nineveh till the war be done. My army, once beyond the Hindu-Kush, shall divide in twain, the one half mine, the other thine, albeit Ninus is the chief of all. Then will we each lay siege to Zariaspa, the one upon the east, the other on the west; and as thy men are spurred to deeds of valor by promises of high reward, so will I urge mine. And look thou, boy, the walls are strong, their copings manned by sturdy foes; yet to him who first shall stand a conqueror on the summit of their citadel, that man shall receive a prize.”
“And the prize, my lord?” asked Menon, shivering at a dread to which he dared not give a name.
“Shammuramat!” cried Ninus, bringing down his doubled fist, till the table rocked and the flagon overturned, the dark wine gurgling out upon the earth like the blood of a stricken warrior. “To the conqueror shall go this prize—by Asshur I swear it!—though he be her wedded spouse or the spawn of a Hittite serf. Now go! and set thy hope on the citadel of Zariaspa.”
For an instant Menon lingered still, his gaze fixed fast upon the eyes of Ninus, his hot blood surging madly through his veins, his sword hand playing nervously about his blade; then he laughed and turned upon his heel without salute, albeit his laughter was like unto the cry of a strangled wolf.
“Wait!” called the King, and as Menon paused, he pointed a warning finger at his under-chief. “No parting word may be spoken with thy wife, save in my presence and in my audience hall this night. And more; should thy lips tell aught which Ninus gave in secret to thine ear, then marvel not if my men-at-arms cast lots amongst them for a concubine!”
So Menon went out from the gardens of the King, and, with a head that drooped upon his breast, rode slowly to the camp beyond the city wall.