SHIFTING THE BURDEN
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
The High Priest Nakir-Kish was summoned to an audience with the King, and was bade to bear a sacred fowl for the manifestation of an augury; so he went forthwith and came upon his master, alone and seated on the throne of Oxyartes, with a naked sword across his knees. The High Priest marveled at the strangeness of this thing, but held his peace, bending his knee and asking in what manner he might serve his gracious lord.
Ninus for a space sat silent, combing at his beard, his black brows drawn into a knot above his nose; then, suddenly, he spoke:
“May a King do homage to a dog?”
The priest stepped back a pace; he passed a hand across his eyes, in the fear that, mayhap, he dreamed; but the King spoke on:
“Shall the lord of Assyria keep covenant with a barking beast, whose mind is such that an oath is naught to him?”
Then Nakir-Kish divined. His master would shift the burden of an evil deed, even though he set it on the shoulders of the gods; therefore the High Priest answered cunningly:
“Nay, lord, in matters concerning the King alone, there is one endowed by birth and mind to best interpret them—thyself.”
“Not so!” cried Ninus, “for the fate of others is woven in the skein. As my deeds of arms are wrought for the glory of Asshur and the lesser gods, so, then, must the gods point out my way when their servant wandereth in the mists of doubt.” He paused, then spoke again, as an humble traveller who had lost his path: “Heed, Nakir-Kish, and lend me aid. The first to stand a conqueror upon the citadel was Habal—and Habal is but a dog. Shall Habal take Shammuramat to wife? Not so! One oath is thus dissolved.”
“Aye,” spoke the priest, “but who was next to stand with Habal on the summit of the citadel?”
“Menon!” breathed the King, in smothered wrath. “Menon to whom I swore a second oath and gave him this Syrian for his own.”
The High Priest shook his head.
“’Twould seem,” he ventured, “that one covenant dissolved would bind its maker’s faith to the second covenant, and thereby lift the troublous mists of doubt.”
“True,” the monarch nodded; “true, to the feeble mind of man; yet, mayhap, in the judgment of the gods, this matter hath a deeper trend. Shammuramat, not Menon, was the conqueror; and albeit he stood before me on the citadel, his vantage was won by trickery!—by his servant who cast me down the stairs, in the cause of his master’s evil selfishness!”
King Ninus paused again, and his fingers, which had squeezed the breath from Kedha, combed gently at his beard, then dropped to the sword across his knees.
“Heed, Nakir-Kish; rive open thy sacred bird, and in its entrails seek an answer to my questionings.”
So the High Priest wrought his master’s will; yet the while he pondered, seeking some nook of wisdom wherein to hide himself. He slew the sacred crane and opened it; he plucked three downy feathers and, giving each a name, dropped them into the carcass, then bound the whole with a silken cord. Head downward he held the crane, and by its slender legs he swung it in mystic circles before the King, then laid it at last upon an altar-stone. When the carcass once more was opened, two feathers lay curled in a close embrace, while the third was lost to sight, and the cheek of the High Priest paled.
“Read!” breathed Ninus; yet Nakir-Kish stood silent, casting a troubled gaze upon the floor. The King stretched forth a hand and pointed to the bird; and in that moment the High Priest knew that an augury of truth was but an augury of death. The master made no threat by word of tongue, yet slid his fingers down the edge of a naked sword, as he looked on the warm brown throat of Nakir-Kish—and smiled.
The trembling priest said naught. His brain swam round and round, and a mist of fear arose before his eyes, for the feather which bore the name of Ninus had disappeared in the entrails of the slaughtered crane.
“Speak!” growled the King, and the pale priest lifted up his voice and spoke, though he spoke in shame:
“Prince Menon shall pass from the sight of those who love him best!. The lord of the world will claim his own—and take Shammuramat—to wife!”
He ceased, and the King sat pondering, with fingers that combed his beard in a feather-touch; then the High Priest gathered up the sacred crane and went his way. On the burning sands he strode, in the glare of a molten sun, seeking to free his spirit from the shadow of a lie.
The King sat pondering. Unto him came a trusted spy with word that in the mountains of Hindu-Kush was gathered a mighty force of Bactrians, those who had escaped from Zariaspa and from the lesser cities round about. The monarch harkened to these tidings with a bounding heart, for in his brain an evil plan was born. Desiring to hold the secret of the Bactrian force, he spoke no word of it to any man, and put the spy to death; then mounting his chariot, he drove to the tent of Menon and Semiramis. Here he came upon them, the Syrian resting upon a couch of skins, by reason of her wounded knee, while Menon sat beside her on the ground.
The monarch greeted them, and with them held a secret council, setting forth the expedients of war. King Oxyartes he would make an ally to Assyria’s might, when the scattered Bactrians had been subdued and the terms of treaty were thereby cheapened for the conquerors. Concerning Zariaspa, he would not destroy it, but would set a governor within its walls and keep it as a stronghold in the East. Therefore he begged that Semiramis would lead a force of twenty thousand warriors across the mountains, seizing upon the source of the hidden river-course, lest the Bactrians choke the cleft with stones and cheat the city of its water and its food.
Right gladly would Semiramis have wrought this deed, yet because of her wound she might not scale the mountains steeps; so, sorrowing at the idleness of many days to come, she offered her servant Huzim as a guide. The King demurred. It was not meet, he said, that a slave should win the glory of so great a thing; yet since Semiramis and the Indian alone might point the way, he would suffer Huzim to lead the army hence. So thus it was agreed, and, after discoursing on other weighty matters of the time, Ninus went forth and once more mounted to his chariot.
Now it chanced that when the King was gone Semiramis held council with her lord, and in that council wrought more woe unto herself than in all her other days since she lay, a deserted babe, among the rocks of Ascalon.
“Menon,” said she, “’tis well that thou and I bask always in the light of uncommon things. Mayhap our works may oft’ times fret the King to jealousy; yet, even so, we win the homage of Assyria and Babylon. Go, therefore, thyself and, leaving Huzim here to guard my tent, point out the way to the Bactrians’ secret place.”
“Nay,” sighed Menon, “how, then, shall I mark a trail through the hills of Hindu-Kush when the way thereof is hidden and unknown to me?”
Semiramis laughed aloud. Through the open tent she pointed to a cleft which split two mountain peaks in twain:
“Climb yonder and pass between, then journey down the further slope till the second mountain stream is reached; hunt northward toward its source, and the foam-tongued waters will shout thy way, even as hounds lift up their song on the quarry’s trail.” She paused to laugh again: “In truth, King Ninus is of little wisdom, else to him I might have pointed out this open path, even as I point it out to thee.”
Prince Menon looked upon his wife and smiled, then dispatched a messenger to Ninus, begging to lead the army over Hindu-Kush; but the King refused. Then Menon went himself before the master, beseeching that this honor might be his, and setting forth such argument that the King at last was moved, albeit he gave consent reluctantly; so Menon, rejoicing, went out from the presence of his lord and came again unto Semiramis.
Yet when he was gone, the King sat pondering on his throne, combing at his beard with a feather-touch, rejoicing, even as the younger man rejoiced. Full well he knew that the fastness of the hills now swarmed with Bactria’s fighting-men. Full well he knew that this horde of warriors, driven from their cities and their homes, would watch from commanding heights and fall upon Menon with the fury of a lion brought to bay. And thus would the master send him forth to die, even as in after days King David of the Jews sent forth the husband of Bathsheba to perish on the spear-points of the sons of Ammon.
And because of these things, the lord of all the world sat pondering on his throne, combing at his beard with a feather-touch—rejoicing—for now in truth would he set the burden of his sin on the shoulders of the gods.
When darkness descended Menon lashed his armor on and bade farewell to his wife Semiramis. He smiled in parting, yet she, because of a haunting whisper-ghost of fear, clung tightly to her lord with her round, warm arms and warmer lips, setting about his neck a leathern thong whereon hung a little fish of malachite—the same which had befooled the eunuch Kishra and brought her in safety out of Nineveh.
“See,” she whispered, “’tis a charm which we of Syria wear, averting evil and bringing back a cherished one unto those who love him best. Wear, then, my charm, as I will ever wear the garment of thy love, for if thou comest not back to me, ah, Menon mine, the joy of the world is but as a cup of water spilled.”
So Menon held his woman to his breast and looked into the heart-pools of her eyes—looked and was gone—on a road of darkness wherein he would grope for a cherished one in vain, and fling his cries of anguish at a throne of unlistening gods.