Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
With Kishra it came to pass as Semiramis had prophesied, for a poison worked within his veins till he sickened and knew no peace. Hour by hour he squatted upon the earth, while the words of the Syrian burned into his heart:
“The master knoweth much concerning his servant’s treachery, and hath sworn to hang him from the highest tower in Nineveh!”
In sooth it were wise to hide away in some secret place where the tramp of Assyria’s hosts was but an echo down the wind, and India offered many a safe retreat. Yet, one grown lazy at a post of power revolts at the thought of poverty and toil, for the cup and a savory dish were as musk to the eunuch’s nose. If he could but lay his hand on the treasure of Semiramis! To dwell in plenty and in ease! To swing the lash above the backs of a hundred slaves! Ah, this were peace! These jewels lay hidden in a leathern sack—a sack concealed in a bed of river mud. Mayhap, if craft were exercised—! Mayhap!
Long Kishra crouched, with burning eyes, with parching lips which he moistened with a restless tongue, while the raisin worked in a skin of vinegar. To his brain came many a cunning scheme which faltered not at a stain of blood, till the sun-lit garden reeled before his sight, and the pebbles in the path were as a million precious gems which mocked his greed. Then Kishra slept, to dream of being crucified on the brazen gates of Nineveh.
When night was come the eunuch set a guard in the streets below, with commands to seize on all who loitered in the shadow of the wall; then he hid himself and lay in wait.
Through the garden stole Semiramis, clothed in a sombre robe and bearing the fish of malachite now wrapped in a veil and bound with cords. She skirted the fountain and bent her steps toward the east, where fewest sentries paced the parapets, and here she paused. Kishra rejoiced that Habal followed not at the Syrian’s heels, for the eunuch’s scent would speedily have caused a warning growl; yet now the spy had removed his sandals, and his cat-like tread fell, noiseless, on the trail.
Close in the shadow of the wall, Semiramis raised her voice in a night-bird’s cry. For a space she listened. An answering cry came faintly back, then she raised her packet to fling it across the wall; but behind her Kishra rose, caught the uplifted arm and wrenched the amulet from her grasp.
With a smothered cry, Semiramis wheeled upon him, her eyes two pools of fury, while a storm of passion bubbled to her lips.
“Hound! give back my own. What! Am I, the spouse of Syria’s Governor, to be tracked like a pilferer through the night? Have done! Give o’er my packet and begone!”
So fiery was her mien that Kishra took a backward step, drawing a dagger from his belt and presenting its point against attack.
“Not so,” he answered, tauntingly. “When captives send forth messengers to Bactria, a palace warden risketh the hazard of his head.”
The woman started. What if the eunuch had overheard her whisperings and was advised of all? Yet, how could it chance, when Memetis had watched on every hand. So Kishra read her thoughts, for anger departed from her tongue, and in its place came a tone of craft:
“’Tis naught, good Kishra. ’Tis naught, I swear, save a message to my lord—a token that all is well at Nineveh—an amulet—the little green fish which the merchant of Phoenicia sold. See, Kishra. I pray you break the seal.”
The eunuch laughed.
“True,” he nodded, “’tis but a fish, and being but a fish, can wait for a moon till the stores of grain be dispatched to the King at Zariaspa. Thy message shall journey with the guard.”
“Nay,” she reasoned, “these wagon-trains are slow, and my haste is great. To-night must it go, or to-morrow, else my runner will come too late.”
“Ah!” grinned Kishra. “Then perchance thy lord in Bactria will reward this runner for his haste.”
“Aye,” replied the Syrian, “even as you shall be rewarded if you cross me not.”
“The price of broken faith is large,” said the eunuch, artfully. “How much?”
“A purse that is weighted to its very throat.”
He laughed in scorn and turned away, but Semiramis caught his robe with a swift, detaining hand.
“Listen,” she urged; “if the price be small, then will I add to the purse another purse and such ornaments as are mine—even to the pearls that rim my sandals round.”
Kishra still shook his head and withdrew his robe, retreating through the garden, while the Syrian followed after him.
“What, then?” she pleaded, and sighed in hope to see him pause.
For a moment he pondered, then, leaning forward till she felt his breath upon her cheek, he whispered, hoarsely:
“The leathern sack of gems!”
Once more she started, yet controlled her voice, answering in a tone of wonderment:
“A leathern sack of gems? In truth I know naught of it. As Bêlit liveth, your words are the words of foolishness.”
“True,” grinned Kishra; “no treasure is hidden on the river bank, nor is there a garden-seat before our eyes, nor a fish pond near at hand where a man may hide his body beneath the scum and harken unto whisperings.”
At his taunting speech Semiramis raised her fist as if to dash it in his evil face, then let it fall beside her, while she sank upon the garden seat in bitter tears. The eunuch for a space stood silent, for well he knew the value of a bridled tongue, so he waited for her heart to battle with her mind and conquer it.
“Give me this sack,” he said at length, “and thy runner shall go unharmed.”
“Nay,” sobbed Semiramis, “a purse—no more.”
“A half,” urged Kishra, but she shook her head, again repeating her offer of the purse.
“A third. Think, mistress, vast riches will be left to thee, and a third is little.” She made no answer, and a light of cunning crept into his eyes. “All might I have if I willed to serve thee ill, for I know the spot on the river bank where—”
The Syrian once more faced him, trembling in her wrath.
“No eye save mine can find the hiding place, though it sought till the sun is cold. Who, then, shall point the way for thieves?” She laughed derisively. “Shall I, Shammuramat, go forth—disguised, perchance, as some kitchen wench—at the heels of a sexless beast? Nay, not till Nineveh hath rotted from the plain!” Again she laughed and snapped her scornful fingers in the eunuch’s face. “Safe by the river my treasure lieth—a treasure for which the King might barter half his power—yet not one gem shall fall into your grasp. Go out and hunt the Tigris, from the mountains to the sea. Dig! and may Gibil damn you for a fool!”
She drew her robe aside, as though she passed some thing of pestilence, and strode away, while Kishra came pattering meekly after her. His avarice had over-shot the mark, and failure gnawed his bowels with the teeth of fear.
They now had reached the fountain’s pool where the palace torches glimmered through the foliage, casting strange shadows upon the earth till the garden seemed thronged with myriads of dancing ghosts. Here Kishra put forth his hand and grasped a fold of the Syrian’s simar.
“Heed me,” he begged, and as Semiramis swung angrily about, he began once more to bargain for the gems. “Be patient, mistress, for my needs are sore, and I, too, would escape from Nineveh, even as thou and thy lord will fly to Ascalon. Give me but a little part of this treasure store and I swear to aid thee with an aid none else may give.”
Semiramis pondered thoughtfully.
“Fling my packet from the wall and I promise you a part.”
But the man was not to be deceived by slippery promises.
“Nay; when the gems are in my hand, then shall the fish of malachite be given unto thy messenger.”
Their horns were locked again. Yet, a moment since, when the Syrian had cursed him in her scorn, her words had left a maggot in his mind. “What!” she had demanded. “Shall I, Shammuramat, go forth to point the way for thieves—disguised, perchance, as some kitchen wench?” Ah, if he could but bend her pride, how simple would be the rest!
“Listen,” he begged, with deep humility. “In the hour of stress we stoop to many things. What harm if the lady Shammuramat conceal her beauty beneath an humble cloak and fare with Kishra to the river bank? By boat we may cross, returning ere the night is old, and none would be the wiser, for the city gates are free to me.”
“No!” declared Semiramis, with a gesture of disdain. “I trust you not, nor will I leave the palace mound, though you prayed till dawn.”
Her speech was firm, yet in it the eunuch marked a sign of wavering, so he urged his case with a beating heart:
“The gems once buried in the garden here, we wait in peace till Menon cometh to take thee hence, and for a third of this treasure store a friend is made, where an enemy might balk thy every move.”
His words were words of wisdom, yet the Syrian frowned in doubt, while her sandal tapped impatiently on the graveled path.
“What will it profit,” the tempter asked, “if wealth be stored away, when he whom thou loveth shall die in a distant land?”
“What mean you?” cried Semiramis, with a gasp of fear, and Kishra drove the nail:
“If the fish of malachite, with the message which it beareth, shall go into Bactria, coming not to Menon, but to the King’s own hand, then in truth thy lord may suffer grievously.”
At his thin-veiled threat the woman quailed, while terror leaped into her eyes.
“Nay—nay,” she pleaded, clinging to his arm, “’twere cruel to do this thing. Be merciful, good Kishra, and I give a tenth.”
The battle was won. The eunuch could scarce restrain his joy, for in his heart an evil plan took root. The treasure once dug from the river bank, the body of Semiramis should fill the hole; yet, lest suspicion rise, he wrought by subtlety, grumbling at the smallness of his pay.
“And my messenger,” Semiramis demanded, “what of him? Two days will he wait—no more. Alas, we will be too late!”
“Then come with me to-night,” breathed Kishra, biting at his nails.
The Syrian wavered, her will tossed back and forth on the shields of doubt and love, till Kishra hinted at further ills to Menon; then her spirit broke. Trembling from head to heel, she agreed to go, but laid an oath upon him, and sought to bind him with a thong of bribery.
“Kishra,” she faltered, “I have promised you a tenth. Be faithful and I give a greater part. Dost swear to guard me from every harm and bring me in safety to the palace once again?”
In the gloom the man smiled wickedly, yet gave his pledge; then whispered into her ear:
“Go to thy chamber, and when the princess sleepeth, creep forth and join me at the garden-seat. An hour must pass, for I send a messenger to the river shore to find a boat. A cloak will I have for thee, and pigment wherewith to stain thy skin, lest the keepers of the gate should marvel at thy comeliness. Go now, and count on Kishra as a servant faithful to the end.”
For a moment more she lingered, faltering; then bowed her head and passed from the garden with a weary tread.
In the sleeping-chamber, Sozana drew her down beside the couch, asking in whispered mirth:
“Didst hear my answer to the night-bird’s call? How fareth the jest with Kishra?”
“It worketh,” breathed Semiramis into a tiny ear, “for the son of fools will journey to the river bank and dig for dreams. Sleep, dear one, and to-morrow we may laugh aloud.”
Long lay Semiramis, staring through the opening in the roof, while she waited for sleep to kiss Sozana’s eyes. Her bosom heaved; her breath came hot, impatient, from her lips. If all went well the city would soon be left behind, and the gardens of Ninus would be but a haunting memory. How sweet to snap the bonds of dull captivity and face such crouching dangers as the darkness veiled! And yet, a sorrow came to share the treasure of her joy. The Princess and Memetis thought her plan was but a jest whereby to trouble Kishra’s peace of mind; and to-morrow they must mourn her as one who slips away into the great unknown and leaves no trace. Again, came a sharper pang for a friend deserted—one who would grieve as none other save her lord might grieve—for Habal, too, must be left behind.
Her hand stole out from the couch’s edge and fell upon him in a fond caress, while Habal licked the hand, and his tail beat happily upon the tiles. Then Semiramis drew him up to her, and wept, with her face deep hidden on his shaggy breast.
The Princess slept. Semiramis arose and moved in stealth toward the door; yet she paused on the threshold, for her dog came creeping at her heels.
“Down, Habal, down!” she whispered, struggling with her tears, and the dog obeyed, though he whined because of impending evil—a sense which is keen in the hearts of beasts, and is passing strange.
In the garden all was still. Semiramis crept to the appointed place where the eunuch waited, eager to begone. She smeared her hands and face with pigment, donned a slave’s simar, and hid her flame-hued hair beneath a ragged hood; yet, when all was ready, she hung back, trembling, till Kishra’s patience broke, and he longed to urge her on by blows.
The door of bronze, which pierced the garden wall, was opened by a sentry who saw but the eunuch and a kitchen wench with a basket upon her head. Oft had he seen the like before when Kishra went forth in search of dainties for his pampered appetite; so when the door clanged sharply at their backs, the sentry once more nodded at his post.
As the street was reached Semiramis well-nigh swooned for joy, and vowed a gift to Ishtar should the city gates be passed. In silence they began to walk, when of a sudden each started at the sound as of a body falling from the palace mound. They paused, but naught was heard or seen, so the two set out again.
Westward their course was laid, past many a booth where women laughed, and crafty hucksters lured them on to buy; past a teeming market-place, for Kishra went boldly in accustomed paths, lest marauders spring upon him from some darkened alley-way. The place was a place of noises, lights and evil smells, of leering, besotted crowds who knew the eunuch and gibed him because of the woman at his side. The Syrian’s blood burned hotly in her veins, till she yearned to tear the jesters with her nails; yet wisdom whispered, so she laughed in the manner of an easy-virtued kitchen wench, and went her way.
And now the booths were passed, and they came at length to the city wall with its mighty gates of brass. Here fortune once more favored them, for a band of belated horsemen came clattering in, the riders nodding on their weary steeds; so Kishra whispered with the captain of the gate, slyly pressing a coin into his palm; then, as the keeper turned his back, the two slipped by and went unnoticed out of Nineveh.
In silence the treasure-seekers crossed the plain till they came to the river bank. Here a boat was found in charge of an under-keeper’s boy who stretched out his hand for pay, then straightway disappeared. Kishra produced a digging tool from beneath his cloak, laid it beside him on the beach, and began to unloose the boat; and while he was thus employed, Semiramis cast a lingering glance at the city wall that loomed against the sky, so black, so stern, with its monster towers which seemed to stand on guard like giant wardens of the night.
As she gazed, her heart grew sad again—sad for the little Princess dreaming on her couch, and because of Habal, watching for the mistress who would come not back to him.
She sighed and turned; yet, turning, felt a cold nose thrust into her hand; then with a cry of joy Semiramis fell upon her knees, her arms clasped tight about the neck of the faithful dog. She remembered the sound of a body falling from the palace mound; ’twas Habal that had leaped to the street below, where he lay for a space with the breath dashed out of him, then hobbled along her trail with a broken paw. At the city gate he had darted between the legs of the horses filing in, and now crouched, panting, at the Syrian’s side, to receive caresses, or reproof because of his disobedient love.
Now the coming of Habal proved a check to Kishra’s plan of murdering the woman when her treasure was in his hands; so, cursing, he snatched up his digging tool wherewith to slay the beast; but Semiramis sprang between them, furious as a mother who defends her child, while the dog rose, snarling, eager for Kishra’s blood.
“Lay but a finger tip upon him,” the mistress cried, “and you hunt alone on the further shore! Have done! The dog is wounded, and with us he shall go!”
Kishra paused. Full well he knew the risk of trifling with a woman’s whims. It were better to humor her in this little thing than to hazard all ere the gems were in his clutch; so, grumbling, he cast his digging tool into the boat and made ready to depart. The craft was small, and rude of shape, yet would serve to bear them safely to the other side; and when Semiramis and Habal had settled in the bow, Kishra with his paddle pushed out into the stream.
“Whither, mistress?” he asked in a muffled tone, as though he feared some lurker on the bank might hear.
“To the lily beds in line with the city gate,” the Syrian whispered, with a hidden smile, while she tore a strip from her nether garment and bound it on Habal’s broken paw.
For a space they were silent, and, as the boat slipped forward in the gloom, dim voices of the night came floating to their ears—to the woman, sweeter than a zittern’s softest strain. She listened to the river’s droning hymn as it worshipped on its way to the Sea-god’s shrine, and the deep-toned song of frogs from a reedy marsh. She heard the lisp of the paddle in the yellow tide, a heron’s echoed cry, and the far, faint call of sentries from the battlements of Nineveh.
On the heart of Kishra these voices cast a spell of fear, chilling the fever of his greed which till now had urged him on. Why should the Syrian be overjoyed to greet her dog if she thought to return ere the dawn had come? Perchance she laid some snare to trip his feet, and would fly to Ascalon, cheating him of his wealth so coveted. The treasure! Mayhap no gems were hidden there at all, and hers was but a trick to lure him to his death.
A thousand terrors trickled from out the gloom; they swam through the waters, climbed into the boat, and lay upon him heavily. Of a sudden the traitor paused, with his paddle across his knees.
“Mistress,” he asked, “what proof have I that no enemy lurketh beside the lily beds, to fall upon me when we reach the shore?”
“None,” replied Semiramis. “He who would dig for leathern sacks, must dare such dangers as the night-gods send. Yet, if yours be a coward’s heart, turn back, for it cometh to me that a tenth is usury.” She smiled again, and bent to her restless dog: “Down, Habal, down! What troubleth thee?”
The boat now floated in the middle of the stream, and ere Kishra began his paddling once again, his fears were confirmed by the actions of the dog. Habal had risen, sniffing at the air. On the western breeze he caught a scent, and his bark rang out till the echoes rolled from shore to shore. A friend was near at hand, and the dog gave joyous tongue.
For a moment Kishra sat staring at Semiramis, while through his evil brain shot the knowledge of his own credulity. From the first she had gulled him, luring him to lie in a muddy fish pond, harkening unto whisperings. No runner waited for her fish of malachite. Her tremblings and her tears were but a mask. Even in her well-feigned fury she had fed him with designs for his own undoing, and he, in his gross cupidity, had eaten of the fruit of fools. No treasure lay hidden on the river shore, but enemies who smiled and waited for their own.
Mad with terror, Kishra spun the boat about, but, in his over-strength of fear, the paddle snapped, and Semiramis laughed aloud. Helpless he sat, a victim to this gloating witch who befooled him with her guile—he—Kishra, warden of the King, who dared not return again to his post of ease. Then fury took him utterly. He seized on the digging tool, arose, and swung it high above his head in the thought to brain her at a blow.
“Devil,” he snarled, “thou hast tricked me with a lie!”
Down came the implement, but not upon the Syrian, for Habal had leaped at Kishra’s throat, and Semiramis overturned the tossing craft.
For an instant all was darkness, fraught with fear; then the man rose, gasping, clutching at the boat. A spear’s length away he spied a foaming swirl, where Semiramis flung high her arms and disappeared.
Then the river again took up its droning hymn; the sentries called from the distant battlements; a dog’s head rode the waves as it pointed to the westward shore, and a boat went spinning down the Tigris, while Kishra clung in terror to its slippery keel.