THE RAISIN IN A SKIN OF VINEGAR
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
Through the hot brown streets of Nineveh a merchant of Phoenicia hawked his wares. His frame, once huge and splendid in its strength, was bent with seeming age, and a grey beard fell to the belt of his trailing robe. Before him, by a leathern strap about his neck, hung a wooden tray whereon his trinkets were displayed, baubles of polished metal, beads of coral and of carven wood, rings, amulets, and fragrant scents. Here, too, were bracelets, chains of many links, scarfs of web-like fabrics and of gaudy hue, colored with the secret dyes from the Sea of the Setting Sun.
From street to street the merchant pushed his way, while ever and anon he raised his voice in a strange shrill cry which drew attention to himself and to his wares; and thus he bartered among the foolish wives of Nineveh. Yet at last he wandered past the market-place to the richer quarters of the city, and came to the central mound whereon sat the palace of the King. To the westward terraced slopes ran down to the level of the streets and to smooth, wide avenues which stretched to the river gate; yet here, where the merchant walked, the walls of the mound rose twenty cubits, masking the royal gardens which drowsed in the noon-day heat.
Again and yet again from the old man’s throat came his strange, harsh call, resembling the cry of a startled crane in flight; then, presently, he paused at the joyous barking of a dog and a woman’s voice in sharp admonishment: “Peace, Habal, peace!”
The merchant hurried onward, yet at the entrance of a narrow lane he turned, cried out once more and disappeared, while within the gardens Semiramis hid a smile and sought to soothe the whining of a shepherd’s dog.
When noontide came again, the merchant once more wandered past the garden walls, and now a captain of the guard came out to him.
“Hey, old man!” the soldier called. “Come, follow me, for the Princess Sozana would look upon your wares.”
“Nay,” said the merchant, smiling as he shook his head, “my trinkets deck the charms of common maidens in the market-place. The daughter of a king would scorn them, for their price is small.”
So spoke the merchant, and smiled once more as he turned upon his heel, but the captain caught him roughly by the robe and whispered into his ear:
“Fool! The Princess Sozana asks but once to look upon a merchant’s tray. Come quickly, lest I urge your pace by a spear-point in your hams.”
The old man trembled at the threat, and followed meekly, through a door of bronze which pierced the wall. At the head of a narrow flight of steps he reached the gardens which King Ninus made for the pleasure of his idle hours. There were palms and vines from Syria, flowers from an hundred lands, trees and shrubs which were strange to the merchant’s eyes, and fragrant thickets interlaced by tiny paths. Here a fountain bubbled, and there an artificial spring gushed forth as though by nature moistening the earth, while countless birds of brilliant plumage fluttered down to drink.
Of a sudden the merchant and his guide came face to face with those who had sent the summons. Beneath an arbor on a bench of stone sat the Princess Sozana in a green simar which was wrought with precious gems and with threads of gold. At her side lazed Semiramis, robed in white; yet, unadorned, her beauty far outshone the daughter of the King. At Sozana’s feet lay Prince Memetis, the Egyptian hostage, toying with her veil which was cast aside, and behind them stood an Afgan mute who waved a monster fan of plumes. None else was near, save Kishra, chief eunuch of the palace-guard whom Ninus had left in charge of his household and his prisoners, and who now in watchful silence sat apart, his sharp eyes resting on the merchant’s face.
The old man knelt, bent forward till his forehead touched the earth, and sprinkled dust upon his head; then, kneeling still, he displayed his wares to the women’s listless gaze. One by one he raised them from his tray, expounding their virtues or the potency of sacred amulets; yet none were pleasing to Sozana’s mind.
“See,” she pouted, plucking at the sleeve of Semiramis, “there is naught save jingling rubbish such as slaves may wear. Wherefore shouldst thou bring this merchant from the streets to weary me? Ho, Kishra! Bid the man begone.”
The eunuch strode forward, but Semiramis stayed him with a lifted hand.
“Nay,” she pleaded, “I did but think to ease the dullness of the hour, and the baubles please me, for many of the like have I seen in Syria.”
The merchant raised his head, a light of hope within his eyes; then he fumbled in a hidden corner of his tray, producing a tiny fish which was carven in malachite and suspended by a leathern stong.
“Ah!” cried Semiramis, and clapped her hands. “Look, Sozana! ’Tis a symbol of Dagon which the Syrian shepherds wear about their necks when they roam the hills by night. Buy it for me, Kishra, for ’twill keep off evil, bringing peace to me and to those who serve.”
The eunuch scowled, but did her bidding, while Semiramis turned once more to the trinket tray.
“Dost know the land of Syria, old man?”
“Aye, lady,” the merchant answered with sparkling eyes, “from the slopes of Lebanon to the Sea of Death—from Jordan where dwells the Sons of Israel to Azapah and the valley of Ascalon—”
“Sweet Ishtar!” cried Semiramis, flinging up her hands. “My home, Sozana! He hath journeyed even to my home in Ascalon!” She laughed and turned to the merchant once again, for now in truth she knew that Huzim hid beneath the Phoenician’s robe. “Speak,” she commanded, in the Syrian tongue which was strange to Kishra and her friends, “speak, for they may not understand. What message from my lord?”
So Huzim answered her and told of the danger-snares which beset his master round about. He told of the battle in the pass, of the wrath of Ninus, and of how the King made proclamation of the prize to him who should first stand conqueror on the citadel of Zariaspa. He spoke of all which Menon had commanded him, and though his words were heavy with the weight of fear, yet Semiramis nodded in seeming happiness and clapped her hands.
“What telleth he?” Sozana asked, and Semiramis answered with a joyous smile:
“He telleth of my lake which sparkleth like unto a jewel among the hills; of my fishes that swim therein, and of Dagon’s little temple on the shore. I see the sheep that browse by day, till the sun is low behind the desert’s rim, and one by one the shepherds’ fires leap, twinkling, through the dusk. Ah, Sozana, mine, ’tis like unto the joy of Prince Memetis when he dreameth by night of his silver Nile and the mighty pyramids.”
Sozana, turning, cast a look of tenderness on him who smiled into her eyes, and suffered her hand to linger when the Egyptian raised it to his lips.
“Say on,” begged Semiramis of the merchant once again, “for I tell you, friend, when first I heard your hunter’s call in the streets below, my heart was set a-leaping, even as Habal loosed his tongue in honest joy. Poor Habal! I have shut him in my chamber, lest in his gladness he spring upon your breast and thereby undeceive this eunuch Kishra, who even now regardeth you with a doubting eye. Be, therefore, brief. What more of my troubled lord?”
“Mistress,” replied the faithful Indian, “he urgeth that we steal away from Nineveh by craft and journey to the land of Prince Boabdul, whither the master followeth when my messenger shall bear him word that all is well.”
“So be it,” said Semiramis, puckering her brows. “Kishra, bear a draught of wine to this aged man who is athirst and would now depart.”
The chief of eunuchs departed on her errand, and in his absence Semiramis spoke quickly, albeit she smiled the while:
“Go, Huzim, and sell your wares through Nineveh by day, yet wait by night on the further river-bank where the water lilies grow. If seven nights pass by and I come not to the place, then walk once more by the garden wall, and Sozana shall summon you again. Buy baubles of Egypt, Huzim, for her lover is of that land, and trifles will seem of value in her sight; yet if Ishtar smileth I will win to the river-bank and journey to Arabia as my lord hath willed.”
When Kishra returned with a cup of wine, the Princess listened eagerly to the merchant’s tale of a ring he had seen and would seek to find. It was fashioned, he said, of yellow metal in the form of two serpents intertwined. It was set with moon-stones, jewels sacred to the goddess Isis who shed her light on the land of Pharaohs far beyond the sea; and Sozana laughed in happiness, urging that he buy this ring though it brought the price of an hundred slaves. The merchant promised as he drank his wine, then, once more bowing till his forehead touched the earth, he departed whence he came. In the streets below he smiled as he hawked his wares, while those in the garden heard his voice uplifted ever and anon in the cry of a startled crane.
Three days passed by, and Semiramis whipped her brain for means of escape from Nineveh; yet all in vain, for liberty seemed as far denied as though her limbs were weighted down by chains. On the parapets of the garden wall paced sentinels from dawn till dawn was come again, so that none might pass unchallenged or unscathed. The palace was but a prison perched on its lofty mound, and though its halls still swarmed with servants and with slaves, its portals were sealed while the King made war on Bactria. By night Semiramis shared the chamber of Sozana, yet the door she might not pass, for across its threshold the eunuch Kishra lay, the curtain-rope made fast to a copper bracelet on his waist. If by chance she could cross the watch-dog’s form to the gardens beyond and clamber down the brick-built mound, she still must face the barrier of the city wall or the brazen gates closed fast in the hours of night. True, bribery of the sentinels might buy a path to the river-bank, whence swimming the Tigris would be as play to the daughter of Derketo; yet, one false step—one virtuous fool who scorned to barter honesty for coin—and Huzim might wait among the lily beds in vain.
Full many a wakeful hour Semiramis stared through the opening in the roof, with eyes which followed not the shimmering stars, nor the chariot of Ishtar rolling down the sky. To her troubled brain came a thousand daring plans, each smiling hope, each ending in a jeer of mockery, till her head grew hot, and anger rose to devour her in its might. What! Was she, the child of gods, to be balked at every turn, when love cried out and Menon battled with his fate alone? Nay, by the breath of Gibil, this thing was not to be! Gold she had none wherewith to buy release, nor jewels to tempt a captor’s lust for wealth; and yet— Of a sudden Semiramis laughed aloud, till the fair Sozana stirred, awaking with a cry.
“Nay, child, ’tis naught,” the Syrian whispered, as she stroked a trembling hand. “Hush, sweet; I did but dream, and the spirits of the night have brought me words of wisdom and of peace.”
The eunuch Kishra sat beneath a palm, his mind a prey unto vexious thought. He was hideous to look upon, with a bloated paunch, a thick-lipped mouth, and crafty eyes which peeped from their pouch-like rims. Long had he served in the household of the King, and now was chief of the palace-guard and warden of the chambers where the women dwelt. When Ninus marched to Bactria, the rearward wing of the palace had been sealed, and, together with the gardens, was set apart for Sozana and Semiramis, while Memetis, the Egyptian hostage, was confined in a distant court, in charge of an under-chief. Now the Princess had pined for the presence of him she loved, and sought by bribery to have him brought to her; yet Kishra feared the wrath of Ninus, and naught would move him. Sozana then contrived, through her tire-maid Nissa, to bribe the guard who paced before the Egyptian’s door, and in secret this maiden bore many a tender message to and fro, till she came at last to a grievous end.
Kishra once marked her stealing from a shadowy passage-way, and on the morrow he lay in wait, following upon her heels and listening while Memetis whispered with the maid. In the knowledge of being thus befooled, so great was his rage that he fell upon Nissa and slew him with his sword, too late repenting the folly of his deed. With the Princess he sought to excuse himself, but for once Sozana forgot her gentle mien and rose in wrath.
“Dog!” she cried, “your life shall pay for the murder of this child, for I swear by Asshur to see you crucified upon the garden wall.”
Now the eunuch knew that Ninus loved his daughter utterly, and at her pleading, would surely nail him to the mortar between the bricks; so he groveled at her feet with tears and prayers, beseeching that she speak no word on the King’s return; yet the Princess spurned him with her foot and refused to heed, till Semiramis spoke softly into her ear, then the maiden’s cheeks grew red again with a rosy flush.
“Kishra,” she answered, “I will spare your worthless life, yet exact a price therefor. Memetis shall come each morning to the garden here, and, beneath your sight, remain till the evening hour. Do this, and silence holds my tongue. Refuse, and the god of darkness claims you for his own.”
Thus it came to pass that the eunuch, in his dread of being crucified, suffered Sozana to have her will, albeit, at very sight of the Egyptian, his blood became as water in his veins. If Ninus learned that Memetis came each day to the women’s dwelling-place, short shift would the chief of guards receive, and Ninus was prone to beset the passing of a man with pain. Thus Kishra roasted betwixt two fires of woe, and because of all these things he pondered much upon his lot, and his sleep was fraught with evil dreams.
As he now sat pondering beneath the palm, Semiramis and Sozana talked with Prince Memetis on a distant garden-seat. This oft’ occurred, yet now there was somewhat in their manner which annoyed the eunuch’s thoughts, for they whispered, with their heads held close together, while ever and anon they glanced to where Kishra sat, and laughed as at some merry jest. So the eunuch waxed suspicious of their murmurings; yet, when he came toward them, they straightway ceased to smile and began to speak of the garden birds, the flowering plants, or the heat of the mid-day sun. Throughout the day they counseled among themselves in secret, with fingers upon their lips and many a swift, mysterious sign, till Kishra sweated because of curiosity.
All night he cudgeled at his brain for means by which to overhear their words, and ere the dawn he bethought him of a plan. Behind the garden-seat, whereon the conspirators were wont to loll, was a muddy fish pond surrounded by overhanging shrubs; and here the eunuch submerged himself, with his chin upon the bank, his fat head covered by a mass of matted vines. In this retreat he waited for a weary space, yet the plotters came at last, seating themselves a spear’s length from the listener’s open ears.
“Hast found a messenger?” Sozana asked, in a voice subdued.
“S-h-h-h! Have a care,” the Syrian cautioned, with a finger against her lip; “the fox is listening, perchance. Keep watch, Memetis, lest he steal upon us suddenly.”
Kishra grinned from his covert in the pond, but gave no sign; then Semiramis drew from her bosom the little fish of malachite which was bought from the merchant of Phoenicia.
“Of a truth,” said she, “the messenger hath been found, and under Kishra’s very nose. Two nights he waiteth in the street below, till I give him warning by a night-bird’s cry and cast this trinket from the garden wall. See! I have marked it with a secret sign, for proof to my lord in Bactria that the runner speaketh truth.”
“Ah!” sighed Sozana. “And, seeing it, he will come to thee?”
“Aye,” returned Semiramis, with a smile of joy, “as fast as Scimitar can bear him on his way. Upon his coming, then will I escape from Nineveh, and with my dear lord cross the Tigris, where we dig our buried treasure from the earth, and—”
“Treasure!” cried Memetis. “Nay, of this thou has spoken naught before.”
“Hush!” begged Semiramis, clutching at his arm. “Methought I marked a movement in the shrubbery. Go see, Memetis, for Kishra would give an eye to learn of what I tell.”
The Egyptian rose and beat about the undergrowth, but found no sign of him who watched, for the eunuch lay as a dead man in the pond, scarce breathing, though his heart was pounding in his breast. A treasure! This, then, was why the plotters whispered secretly. Fools! The fox’s teeth, perchance, might sink beneath the feathers when he snapped.
“’Tis naught,” the Egyptian made report, as he came once more to the garden-seat. “Say on, Shammuramat, for none can overhear.”
“Mayhap,” the Syrian laughed, “it were wiser that I held my tongue, yet ye who love me will ever be discreet. When we journeyed from Azapah to the court of Ninus, I bore a store of jewels in a leathern sack; and, knowing not if the King would smile or frown, I buried it on the river’s further bank against a time of need. Ah, Sozana, thou who loveth gems, shouldst look upon this store! There are pearls from India, rubies from beyond the Sea of the Setting Sun, blue girasols and the opals of the Nile, zircons gleaming as the eyes of Bêlit shine, amethysts, and corals carven in the forms of birds and beasts. Tyre, Sidon, and the far off Heliopolis have helped to heap this hoard. With half a kingdom might be bought, yet now it lyeth hidden in a bed of river mud.”
The Princess sighed, and Semiramis pinched her dusky cheek, promising to keep the choicest gem of all as a wedding gift for the little daughter of Assyria.
“Nay,” Sozana smiled, “’tis not for the gems I sigh, but because of a loved one who would depart from me. Why, sweet, wouldst thou do this thing?”
Semiramis looked thoughtfully upon the earth and stirred a lizard with her sandaled foot.
“Dost remember the merchant of Phoenicia who was here three days agone? He told me of my home in Ascalon. Since then I yearn for the smell of my dew-moist hills, for the reach of the valleys, and my sweet, cool lake which sparkleth in its bed of rocks. The water, Sozana!—and here I look upon a tepid spring—a fountain fed by cisterns on the palace roof. Downward this water floweth, to trickle weakly from the earth, while eunuchs gather it in skins and bear it back upon the roof again. Dear Ishtar, what a flout to Nature’s pride!”
For a space the three sat silent, then the Egyptian hostage asked:
“And if thou wouldst fly with Menon unto Ascalon, what then would chance to Kishra when the master cometh from his wars?”
Semiramis laughed softly.
“Poor Kishra! In truth he sleepeth on the hornéd cap of Bel. The master knoweth much concerning his servant’s treachery, and hath sworn to hang him from the highest tower in Nineveh.”
There were ripples in the fish pond, but the plotters gave no heed.
“It cometh to me,” Semiramis laughed again, “that this eunuch will gather up such treasure-store as may be wrung from those who serve him, and fly to some distant land ere Ninus nail him to the city gate. A villain is he, yet none may say that Kishra be a fool.”
For a space they argued strategems of escape from the palace walls, and of the journey unto Ascalon, then the three arose, and, chattering, wandered down the garden path.
From the fish pond Kishra crawled, with an evil grin upon his face, and made his way by stealth along the wall, a stream of muddy water dripping from his muddy robe.
From a vine-clad arbor by the fountain’s pool, Semiramis watched him creeping through the trees, and smiled.
“Of a truth,” she murmured, happily, “the poison in his blood will work; aye, even as a raisin in a skin of vinegar.”