THE RIDDLE OF THE SECRET WAY
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
The day waxed old. The sun plunged down into a fiery death, as though a Moloch swallowed it, to breathe back flames from his brazen throat; then the crimson glow grew faint and faded from the west; the twilight deepened, while a purple haze stole up on the mountain slopes, to wrap the loftiest crags in gloom, till the moon rode forth and set them free.
Semiramis and Huzim now paused for rest and food, for the way grew more precipitous, and naught might be accomplished while the darkness held; so when the Indian had eaten he stretched himself in sleep, but for the Syrian there was none. She sat with her chin upon her hand, gazing in thought upon the mountain stream which tumbled noisily beside the resting place, while through her brain a question rioted and gave no peace—a question which mocked, yet lured her on through swamps of deep perplexity. Whence came these stores of food to Zariaspa? and why in the name of Nebo should the Bactrians set the place on the further side of a mountain range? To cross the ridge was but to meet with Ninus and his ring of warriors. How pass them and win to the city walls?
“Ah, little stream,” she murmured, with a heavy sigh, “what secrets of the hills thy hundred tongues could tell did I but understand thy strange, wise songs!”
The stream sang on, a roar of dull monotony that lulled her senses into drowsiness, and again the Syrian sighed as she stretched her limbs for sleep; yet slumber hid itself away as hid the answer to her quest, and suddenly a silence fell—a silence so deep that the wind-gods seemed to hold their breath as for a coming storm, while through the hush ran a whispered chant of insects of the night—that murmurous hum from the tongues of tiny, things.
The Syrian started, sat upright on the earth, and stared at the stream in wide-eyed unbelief. Where, before, a torrent rushed along its way, leaping the stones with a foaming, boisterous swirl, now ran a trickling rivulet. Its song was stilled; black rocks protruded from its bed, and a stranded fish flapped clumsily upon the sand. For a moment longer stared Semiramis, then leaped to her feet and shook the sleeping Indian.
“Awake!” she cried. “As Ishtar liveth, I have spoken with the stream—and the stream hath answered me!”
For a space she whispered eagerly, pointing to the north, till Huzim rose and brushed the slumber from his eyes. They bound the jaws of Habal with a leathern thong, lest the dog give tongue and sound alarm; then they crept in silence up the water-course. Northward it ran, yet suddenly it sheared away toward the east where the hills bent inward, forming a mighty pocket in the mountainside, and here the hunters paused, for faintly down the wind came the calls of men, the bellow of a burden-beast, and the sound of many hammer-strokes.
“Ah,” breathed Semiramis, “’tis there the riddle hath its root, hanging like grapes till we come to strip the vine.”
They left the stream and clambered upward, with an aim of spying from above, the Indian creeping on ahead, while Semiramis came after him, her dog in leash. The steeps grew difficult, but the seekers spared their strength, mounting slowly till they came upon a sentry seated in a narrow pass and singing softly to himself.
“How white is his throat,” smiled Huzim, as he notched a shaft and knelt among the rocks; but Semiramis laid a restraining hand upon his arm.
“Nay, spare him; for see, he looketh upon the stars, and, all unknowing, giveth praise to Ishtar. To slay him were to bring us evil. Come!”
To the right they crept, in a circuit which brought them far above the watcher’s post, then turned and bent upon their course again; and thus they journeyed stealthily, as in days of old they had stalked their game in Syria, coming at last to the lip of a precipice. Prostrate they lay and peeped below, yet naught could be seen because of gloom, and the trailing mists which eddied to and fro at the chase of a fickle breeze. Strange sounds came floating up to them, an oath, a sharp command, the crack of a lash, and the jumbled echoes of haste and toil; and now the moon slid out from behind a crag, bathing the slopes in a wave of light, while the call of sentries echoed far and wide, and the din in the valley ceased.
The watchers crept into the shadow of an over-hanging rock, continuing to peer into the depths beneath; and, as they looked, they caught the gleam of water, whereon a clumsy barge was pushed by men who waded to their waists.
“See!” gasped Huzim, pointing to the loaded barge. “It floateth toward the cliff! What manner of mystery is this?”
It was even as he said. Another barge came out, and still another, till seven in all were counted, each pushed by waders toward the cliff, each disappearing suddenly as if it sank into some yawning well. On the water’s edge swarmed scores of men, each busied with his appointed task; then after a space a gang came forth to labor at a wooden gate which slid between jaws of masonry. By means of a prizing-beam this gate was raised, when the dammed-up water once more rushed into the bed of the mountain stream, and the earth was seen where a lake had rested in a basin among the hills.
Now all these things were strange to Huzim and as marvels beyond his grasp, but Semiramis smiled and thus reproached herself:
“In truth have I been but a suckling babe concerning wit and the wiles of men; yet beyond the mountains lie twice a million other babes, with Ninus who croweth mightily and sitteth enthroned—the master-babe of all!” She turned to the Indian, thoughtfully: “Tell me, didst say that Menon dug his wells to the east of Zariaspa and found sweet water there?”
“Aye,” said Huzim; “but what hath this to do with barges on a mountainside?”
“Much,” the Syrian laughed, “for these boats go down through a cavernous passage-way, beneath the mountain, beneath the earth where Ninus is encamped, and beneath the city’s walls. There the Bactrians receive their stores of food and burn these barges which may not travel back again. The water they gather up in cisterns for the city’s needs, or loose it at will, whence it floweth away, to sink in the thirsty sands beyond. Thus Menon hath digged his wells, and marveleth at what is found.”
The Indian listened with an open mouth, grunting his wonder, but offering no reply, and Semiramis spoke again:
“By Ishtar, ’tis a cunning wile, yet craft may match it unto Bactria’s woe. Menon is mine at last!” she cried exultantly. “The King is mine! And Zariaspa lieth in the hollow of my hand! Up, Huzim, for we climb to the mountain top ere dawn hath come!”
Once more they journeyed, with care at first because of sentinels who watched the hillsides as a mother eagle guards her young; but at length the danger line was passed and they mounted with quickened pace. Up, up they climbed till the moon went down, and the chill of the lofty altitude came searching beneath their cloaks; then for an hour they rested, and the ascent was begun again. By the gleam of the stars alone they toiled, till a sickly glow came stealing from out the east; and then, as the sun came up, they stood at last on the mountain’s spine, poor Habal dropping at their feet with heaving flanks and a lolling tongue.
Semiramis heaved a sigh. Beneath her lay the land of Bactria, yet hidden now by a ghostly sea of mist—a mist that writhed and heaved, revealing giant peaks that seemed to peep out timidly, to turn and flee as though pursued by spirits of the under-world; then the peaks, emboldened as the sunrays drank the vapors down, rushed back again, while scurrying clouds dissolved like rabble before a war-king’s chariot.
Lower and lower sank the mist, till the battlements of Zariaspa pierced the veil, and on the walls long lines of white-robed priests came forth in worship of the sun, while warriors dipped their banners, knelt, and raised their gleaming arms aloft.
As Semiramis watched, the scene unrolled as to one who looks into a witch’s caldron when the reek is blown away. She saw the valleyed foothills, and the tawny plain that stretched beyond till lost in an ochre haze. She saw the city, grim, defiant in its might, and the vast brown monster coiled around its outer shell, hungry, baffled, weary of its fruitless grip. From north to south long ridges seamed the earth where trenches had been dug to hold the slain and the offal of the camps, the whole heaped o’er with sand lest pestilence arise, while scattered far and wide lay blackened skeletons of scaling-towers, engines of assault, and abandoned catapults, which the enemy had wrecked or burned with fire.
And now the army wakened, not as warriors eager for the siege, but as sluggards who find it easier far to hurl a drowsy curse than to labor like men in a cause of little hope.
“See!” cried Semiramis, pointing with a trembling arm, while her great eyes blazed in scorn. “King Ninus lieth down in sloth, and a million warriors rot in idleness! By Ishtar, with such a force I’d overthrow yon town as a woodsman felleth a sapless tree!” She paused to sigh, then turned to Huzim with a smile: “Among the stars above strange happenings are ordained, yet perchance unto Ninus I may whisper soon, in that he rouseth from his lethargy.”
The Indian regarded her both earnestly and long.
“Mistress,” he answered, grimly, in the manner of one who is charged with truth, “if thou wouldst whisper in the ear of Assyria’s King, first make its opening larger with the barb of thy hunting spear.”
“Nay,” laughed Semiramis; “a woman’s wit may sink far deeper and will leave no scar. Now point me out where my good lord Menon hath set his camp.”
The Indian’s finger swept the line of the city’s eastern wall, to a mound beyond, to a dull brown horde of idle warriors—as idle as the warriors of the King.
“Ah!” sighed the yearning wife, and walked apart to gaze across the walls of Zariaspa, in hope that her heart might lead her eyes unto one she sought among a myriad of midges on the distant field.
“Menon,” she whispered, her arms outstretched, her sensuous soul outflung, “were Shammuramat in truth a dove, how swiftly would she wing her way to thee!”
As the sun slid down and the shadows of the hills crept out across the plains, King Ninus sat within his tent, while about him stood a score of his under-chiefs. Warriors they were of many lands which made Assyria’s kingdom one, stern men of copper hue, half naked in the summer heat, gaunt of feature, lean and sinewy of limb. On the faces of many was stamped a look of weariness; on others anger, while the monarch wore his darkest scowl; for a council was being held, wherein rebellion against the King had risen to a fever-pitch, and fierce internal strife was like to rend the army from end to end.
“Heed me!” cried Asharal, the Babylonian Prince whose hatred of the conqueror led him ever to dispute. “What need to starve in Bactria when plenty lieth along the Tigris and the Euphrates? Why break our teeth against a wall of stone when naught may come of it save a bleeding mouth? We storm a city, fling away a nation’s wealth as though its coffers served a catapult! Our soldiers sicken at the lack of food and because of the bitterness of long defeat! If Ninus be in truth a god, then let him give this city into our hands; if not, he will lead his wearied servants home!”
For answer the King rose up and smote Prince Asharal full upon the mouth, in that he fell upon the earth with twitching limbs and eyes that rolled in vacancy.
“So,” growled Ninus, nursing the knuckles of his great brown fist, “the dog, at last, hath a mouth that bleeds.” He turned to the Babylonian’s friends and spoke again, calmly, but as a master speaks: “Because he is born a fool, I spare him—the next of his like shall hang!”
A silence fell within the council tent, save for the shifting of uneasy feet, and the creak of harness as the fallen man breathed fast and hard; then, in the hush, a sentry entered, bowing low before the King.
“Lord,” said he, “a messenger is without, demanding an audience of Ninus and of his chiefs.”
The lips of the monarch parted for an oath, and yet no sound came forth; instead his mouth stretched wider still in wonderment, for before him stepped a woman warrior, the like of whom his eyes had never lit upon. Her shapely limbs were encased in linen, bound with thongs, as were the leathern sandals on her feet; she wore her tunic, washed white in a mountain stream, and across her breast was flung a leopard’s skin, caught with a clasp behind and forming a quiver for her shafts. She carried a bow and hunting spear, and on her shoulders, brown and bare, her red locks rippled from a brazen helm.
The chieftains stared; and yet it was not the splendor of her raiment which held them in amaze, but her beauty, strange and devilish—her eyes, deep pools of ever changing light wherein the sons of men grew foolish and were consumed.
“Shammuramat!” breathed the King. “Whence comest thou?”
“Shammuramat no more,” the Syrian answered, “but a merchant from the west with wares for sale.”
“By Bêlit,” grunted Gazil, a hairy chieftain from the uplands of the river Hit, “did the merchant sell herself, I’d buy, though the bargain stripped me to the bone.”
“Hush!” a nudging neighbor whispered. “Be sparing of thy tongue, lest Ninus serve thee as he served yon Babylonian fool.”
So Gazil held his peace, and Ninus looked in silence on Semiramis. In the mind of the King two spirits warred for mastery; the one in anger at this prisoner who escaped from Nineveh to defy his will, the other unwilling admiration of her recklessness.
“And why,” he asked, as he combed his beard, “doth the merchant risk her head in a journey unto Zariaspa?”
Semiramis regarded him with a look of childish wonder wherein was mingled trust untouched by fear.
“Right well the lord of Assyria knoweth that I come at his own command.”
Now the King bad commanded no such thing, yet, recalling how the Syrian’s wits had befooled him in the halls at Nineveh, he took council with himself lest it chance again.
“Speak,” he urged, with a cautious mien, “that these my chiefs and friends may hear.”
Semiramis bowed before him humbly and turned to the listening men.
“My lords,” she began, and looked on each in turn, “far better than I might Ninus speak, for the glory of this deed is his.” She paused an instant, then spoke once more, her rich tones falling strangely on the ears of those who heard. “In a vision came the King unto my side—a spirit in the godly robes of Asshur and the hornéd cap of Bel. ’Arise, Shammuramat,’ he commanded, in a voice that rolled as from afar; ’arise and seek through the hills of Hindu-Kush for a wondrous secret hidden there—a secret through which all Zariaspa feasteth long, while Assyria must prowl, a hungry wolf outside its walls.’”
“Ah!” cried Ninus, leaping to his feet, “thou knowest, then, whence cometh Zariaspa’s store of food?”
“Aye,” she answered, “but the spirit of the King said more.” The monarch sank into his seat, and she turned to the gaping chiefs: “’My spirit,’ spoke the spirit of the King, ’is heaven-born, yet my flesh is mortal as all men know full well; so follow thou where my spirit leadeth and sell this secret to my mortal flesh for such a price as justice may demand.’”
The King looked up, a light of anger in his eyes; but he curbed his speech, for he knew not what was yet to come, and half a god was better far than being proven not a god at all.
“Say on,” he muttered, and Semiramis said on. She wove a wondrous tale of magic and of myth, of how the spirit led her through the gates of Nineveh unseen; of how a steed awaited beyond the walls to bear her on her way; of the arms and raiment found upon its back, and its speed in passing through the lands of enemies.
Now in these days the sons of Assyria were as children whose minds were swayed by superstitious fears; in demons they believed who thronged the earth and air, the waters and the sky; so the words of Semiramis were the words of truth to all save two, who listened and were not deceived. The one was the King; the other Nakir-Kish, High Priest of the Magi, a man of wisdom who stood apart with folded arms, and smiled. The Syrian marked his look of ill-veiled jealousy, for she trod too close upon his own dark rites to pass unchallenged; therefore she sought to disarm an enemy ere the weapon of his speech was raised.
“My lords,” said she to the wondering chiefs, “the tale is done. As the spirit of Ninus led my steps, so followed I and found; yet if there be one to doubt my words, then let him ask of Nakir-Kish, by whose high arts was the spirit of the King unleashed and sent to me at Nineveh.”
All eyes were turned upon Nakir-Kish who flushed as the Syrian’s shaft went home, for of a certainty he stood in a grievous pass. To deny would strip him of a boasted power and cheat his magic of a splendid deed; to confirm her words was but to mark him as the ally of a liar; so the High Priest pondered for a space and held his tongue. Yet the chieftains waited, so at last he strode to the center of their ring and raised his arms.
“’Tis even as she telleth,” he cried aloud, and Semiramis smiled, with the air of one who conquers Kings; then Ninus arose and spoke:
“Peace, Nakir-Kish! It is not meet that our works be heralded abroad. Let the woman tell of the Bactrians’ store-house hidden from our mortal eyes.”
The Syrian shook her head.
“My lord,” she made reply, “’tis true the merchant selleth wares, yet the merchant hath a price.”
“Name it,” growled the King. “If thy words be true, I give a chariot’s weight in gold; if false—beware!”
“Nay, radiant one,” she smiled, “is Shammuramat a thief? One chariot I ask—of wood and brass—with a man to drive me whither and when I will.”
“Granted,” agreed the King. “Choose chariot, steeds, and charioteer, but in the name of Nebo tell us quickly of what we yearn to know.”
“Wait!” said Semiramis. “My bargain must first be sealed. As to steeds, I care not, so be they sound in wind and limb; yet as to him who driveth, is of greater moment to my sale.”
She turned to the listening warriors, then paused to laugh again, for half a score of men stepped forward, eager to drive her, though the road be laid through Gibil’s smoking gates.
It is ill to tweak a King’s impatient mood, yet this the Syrian dared to do, knowing right well the price Assyria would pay to call proud Bactria slave; therefore she paid no heed to Ninus, but wrought with his chieftains, smiling, conscious of her power.
“Nay, friends, ’tis I whose pride is roused at thought of riding forth with valiant men of war. Each—all—I love ye, for your strength, your loyalty to him who leadeth, who by his wisdom conquereth the world; yet one alone may drive my chariot, and he—”
“Prince Menon!” cried Nakir-Kish, seeking to win a friend where he dare not make an enemy, and Semiramis turned and bowed before the King.
The monarch frowned, and for a space he pondered, weighing the value of the Syrian’s knowledge against the measure of his royal pride; yet it came to him that her arts had left him but a single path, for in her secret lay the nation’s welfare and the King’s. His chieftains plotted treason, while the army trembled between revolt and loyalty, wavering, waiting for a leader’s cry to plunge them headlong into open war—a war at which the Bactrians would laugh aloud in very joy. Peace, then, the Syrian offered—peace and victory—her price the forgiveness of a single man. Forgiveness! It was galling to the King, yet, where a King drinks gall, it were well that he drain his goblet with a smile, as though the draught lay sweet upon his tongue; therefore Ninus smiled, rising to speak in a voice which all might hear:
“Listen, my children. Long have I yearned to take Prince Menon to my heart; yet, because of stubbornness, he sitteth upon his mound, devoured by spleen. If now he would once more call himself my son, a father will bid him welcome, even as he welcometh a daughter in Shammuramat.”
At this a mighty shout went up, and the Syrian’s great eyes filled with tears. She fell upon her knees and would have pressed her lips to the monarch’s hand, but Ninus raised her and kissed her upon the mouth.
Then before them all Semiramis told her tale of the water-way beneath the hills; of the cleft in the cliffs on the further side where the Bactrians damned a mountain stream, raising the waters to the height desired. She told of the outposts guarding this secret round about, while through the fertile lands an army of hunters combed the forests and the fields for game; this game to be borne to the hidden cleft and loaded on barges, whence it floated through the bowels of the earth unto waiting Zariaspa.
“And thus,” cried Semiramis, “cometh food to our hated enemies—stores and a flow of sweet, cool water, when Assyria must sit outside the walls, unconquering, hungered and athirst.”
She ceased, and silence lay within the royal tent, silence save for the sound of heavy breathing and, anon, a gasp of wonderment; yet, presently, the High Priest Nakir-Kish strode forth, with the aim of sharing in the Syrian’s fame. He raised his naked arms, a light of battle in his eyes, his voice a tempest charged with the fires of prophecy:
“Glory to Asshur, lord of all the lords! for on the spirit-tongue of Ninus is chanted Zariaspa’s song of death! Harken, ye chiefs of proud Assyria, and ye who follow at their heels! This day your King will lead ye o’er the peaks of Hindu-Kush, to crush the foeman’s strength, to destroy his store-house in the mountain side, and fill the tunnel’s mouth with stones! Up, Gazil! Sound thy battle horn! Collect thy swordsmen from the hills of Naïri and thy slingers from the north! Up, men of Babylon and Nineveh, to follow where your King may lead, and let your war-cry be—Shammuramat!”
The Syrian bowed low, yet even as the chieftains rose with her name in war-cry on their lips, she stayed them with a lifted hand.
“Nay, lords,” she laughed, “your mighty priest hath offered but a jest, to test the temper of his dogs in leash. Bark not so loud, brave dogs, for none will climb the mountain side this day.”
At her daring speech, the High Priest Nakir-Kish grew pale in wrath, and Ninus watched in silence, knowing there was somewhat yet to come, while the men-at-arms drew closer, in a circle of wonder and of awe.
“What need to climb,” the woman asked, “when the master hath a fairer plan?”
“Say on,” commanded Ninus, cautiously, and Semiramis turned her back upon Nakir-Kish.
“My lord,” she spoke, “’tis not in thy mind to cross the mountain range and tumble stones into the tunnel’s throat, for thereby this great supply of food will cease. Rather would the King go forth and dig till he find this sunken river-bed; and then, when the laden boats come down, their stores shall fill the stomach of Assyria, while Zariaspa looketh on with curses at our feast. This, then, is the thought in the mind of Ninus, for the mind of the King is wise.”
She ceased, and once more silence fell. The chieftains cast their eyes upon the earth, nudging one another slyly, while the High Priest glowered and spoke no word. King Ninus was likewise silent for a space, yet presently his great beard trembled beneath his fingers, as he gazed at the woman leaning on her spear; then he burst into a roar of laughter, taking her hand as he might the hand of a brother and a King.
In the valley among the foothills, hidden from the sight of Zariaspa’s walls, an army of slaves began to dig a mighty trench; full twenty cubits deep it was, running from north to south in a line which must cross the hidden river-bed. For eleven days they dug, yet all in vain, till many looked askance upon Semiramis, believing her tale to be the fancies of some foolish dream; and of those who doubted, the first was Nakir-Kish, while Ninus followed close upon his heels.
The King set watch upon Semiramis, commanding that Menon come not into the western camp till proof of her word was manifest; yet at all these doubts the Syrian laughed, urging her diggers on with promises of reward—reward, forsooth, which would come from the coffers of the King.
She demanded the post of chieftain of these works, and from dawn till darkness fell she set the pace for labor, even as Ninus himself had toiled in the building up of Nineveh. At night, when the camp was stilled in sleep, she would creep through the valley’s dip, listening from time to time with her ear pressed close against the earth, and at last she reaped reward in the faint far gurgle of waters underneath.
On the morning of the eleventh day, the diggers ceased their toil, for their trench had come upon a rocky water-course whose roof was fashioned of timbers and the trunks of trees, whose height five cubits might embrace and whose width was of greater span. No water now flowed through this strange black hole, yet its bottom was wet, and soon a stream came trickling down, to deepen and grow in magnitude; then, while the diggers leaned upon their implements, watching open-mouthed, the current turned upon itself, no longer sweeping toward the city walls, but into the trench Semiramis had dug—a tiny river, running in a strange new bed.
And now a marvellous happening came to pass, for, suddenly from out the earth shot a wooden barge full laden with the carcasses of bear and mountain-goat, sheep, and the deer which wander through the hills of Hindu-Kush, much grain and skins of wine. Then, seeing these things, the diggers dropped their tools and fled from Semiramis as from one accursed; but the Syrian laughed and leaped upon the barge.
The King, aroused from sleep by a thunderous roar of many voices, came out from his tent and stared into a new-made river flowing at his feet. On its tide sat a rocking barge piled high with food and drink, while on the very topmost sack of grain a red-haired witch was perched, her eyes aglow, her hand outflung in impish greeting to the King.
“Ho, master!” she cried, with a bubble of laughter in her tone, “the lords of Bactria send tribute to the lord of all the world!”