THE PASSING OF A MAN
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
King Ninus took council within himself, and was afraid. Menon, he knew full well, was a seasoned warrior, one who even from the ashes of defeat would oft’ times snatch a brand of victory. What if he won to the Bactrians’ secret-place and returned unscathed? He would thereby add more glory to his name and bring his master’s design to naught. Nay, Menon must pass from the sight of those who loved him best! What chance, the like of this, might again arise, and when? Mayhap the lord of the world must wait—alone—for the waning of many moons, while Menon lay nightly at the side of Semiramis—and the thought was not to be endured. By the spirit of Shamashi-Ramân, the spirit of this man must pass!
And yet King Ninus pondered, tossed back and forth by passion and the haunting whisper-ghost of fear. Then he lifted his head and laughed. It was not meet that the lord of all Assyria should whine at the altar stone of circumstance.
“Therefore,” he reasoned within himself, “will I twist the tail of chance; for when the steed of Doubt be saddled, mount him, lest a rider be left behind.”
So it came to pass that Menon, ere he led the army forth, was summoned before the King, and found him seated in the hall of Oxyartes, attended by Neb and Ura, two tongueless eunuchs of giant frame and knotted thews, whom Ninus had brought from the land of the Lower Nile. At right and left of the royal seat they stood, awaiting the master’s nod—a nod which would be obeyed, though it asked the slaying of an enemy or destruction to themselves; yet Ninus gave no sign to them as Menon bowed before the throne. It had come to the King, in thought, that by plucking his rival’s wife from out his arms and sending him to death, mayhap the wrath of the goddess Ishtar might work an evil unto him who wrought the deed; therefore it were wise that Menon yield to the master’s will, though consent be won by bribery or the torture-chain. So Ninus smiled, and spoke in a voice of honey mixed with oil:
“Son of my heart, it hath come to me that our needs demand a King in the land of Syria; and because of thy deeds will I set thee up, to reign in plenty, bringing glory to thy house and name.”
Menon looked upon his master, marveling; yet at his heart suspicion came a-knocking, even as a runner speeds by night to sound alarm from door to door. He feared, yet knelt before his lord and spoke in gratitude; then, rising at last, he took the bit of chance between his teeth, and asked:
“Who, lord, shall follow me to Syria and there remain?”
And Ninus answered him and said:
“An army of chosen warriors to hedge thee in safety round about—my daughter Sozana to sit beside thee on a throne.”
A silence fell. Each looked into the other’s eyes, in measure of the final cast; then Menon spoke a single word in answer:
Again fell silence, till the monarch’s cloak of gentleness was pealed away, leaving him a brutish ruler over men—a ruler naked in his flame of power—before whose passion the passions of lesser men must be consumed and die.
“Heed well,” he cried, and pointed a finger, trembling in spite of will, “’tis better far to sit a throne in Syria than to rot and be forgotten in the hills of Hindu-Kush. Choose, then, to live or die! Choose now, for I tell thee this: though the arch of heavens fall, Shammuramat shall be thy wife no more—but mine!”
For answer Menon set one foot upon the dais of the throne, and, curving his spine, struck fiercely with a doubled fist. It sank into the monarch’s beard, and deeper, to the cruel mouth beneath; whereat King Ninus reeled, and the great dim hall spun round and round in a misty smear of light. Then Menon’s sword came rasping from its sheath, for he, too, looked through a blinding mist, though the mist was red; yet ere he could smite, the eunuchs Neb and Ura fell upon him, dragging him to the floor where they bound his wrists with thongs.
The King arose, though leaning dizzily against his throne. He wiped a blood stain from his wounded lips and spoke, in a voice which was strangely calm:
“Bear me this dog to a chamber beneath the citadel and nail him to the wall!”
So the eunuch Neb went out and cleared the passage-ways of all who lolled therein, while Ura covered Menon with a cloak and bore him on his back to a distant chamber where the city cisterns were. Here they stripped him of his armor and of all he wore besides, even to the little fish of malachite; then, deaf to his curses, they pierced his hands and feet and nailed him against the wall, where he hung in agony.
When this was accomplished Ninus came to view his handiwork. He looked and his heart was glad, for now no more would this man rise up to steal his fruits of passion or of power.
“Heed,” spoke he; “renounce Shammuramat for evermore, and I lift thee from the nails and heal thy wounds.” Menon made no answer, and presently the master spoke again: “To fling away thy life is but the deed of a mindless fool, for I swear by the breath of Asshur thine eyes shall look no more upon Shammuramat!”
“Liar!” cried Menon, and laughed in scorn—laughed, though a sweat of anguish dripped down upon his breast; and the laughter enraged the King.
With his fingers he touched his eyes; touched, too, the dagger in his girdle and made a sign to the eunuch Neb. Two thrusts, and the brain of Menon wandered on a darkened road; then Ninus looked up and mocked at the man impaled upon the wall.
“Who now,” he asked, “will look upon Shammuramat? and who shall say that the lord of Assyria speaketh falsely, even to a fool?”
He ceased; then Menon raised his drooping head and cursed his King in prophecy:
“Thou spawn of hell! Laugh now in my hour of tears! Rejoice, ere the hand of reckoning shall draw thy taunting tongue! Thou hast slain my heart and let my body live! Slay, thou, the body, also, but the spirit thou cans’t not slay! ’Twill come to thee, this spirit, watching at thy couch and board, watching through thy huntings and thy wars—through days of waking and the nights of troubled sleep! ’Twill bay thy trail of blood and lead the hounds of Ishtar to their kill! Laugh, then, O lord of lies, and wait for Menon! Wait!”
The shrill voice ceased to ring throughout the chamber, and he who cried in prophecy hung limp and speechless from the nails. The eunuchs crouched, trembling, at the master’s feet, and the master, also, was afraid. Nor man nor beast he feared, yet if a spirit rode upon his soul, full well he knew that the steed would race for Gibil’s smoking stalls; so the King took council within himself whereby to cheat a ghostly rider of his mount.
“In truth,” he mused, “if Menon liveth, his spirit may not wander from its outer shell; and if it there remain, how, then, shall it follow me, with a nose of vengeance snuffling at my trail? Again, should the woman accuse me of his death, right well may I swear a guiltless oath while his life be still his own.”
Thus mused Ninus and washed his conscience of a stain, then turned to his eunuchs in a sharp command:
“Lift ye this man from the nails upon the wall; restore his breath with water from the cisterns, and his strength with wine. Bring garments wherewith to warm his flesh, and a salve to heal his wounds. Guard ever this doorway, bearing food and drink, for I charge ye that his body must not die, but live.”
So the King came up from under the under-chambers of the citadel and caused a thousand torches to be set aflame; yet, even in the glare of burning pitch, a shadow seemed to haunt him, with a low-hung muzzle snuffling at his heels.
From the city gates went twenty thousand warriors, and in the van a spy whose name was Akki-Bul, a man who knew the hills of Hindu-Kush and would lead an army hence. Why, he fathomed not, yet wore the armor of a chieftain and his sword, a chieftain’s nether garments, while about his neck, from a leathern thong, hung a charm of carven malachite. So, pondering upon the strangeness of these things, proud Akki-Bul went forth to spy the way, ten spear lengths in advance of those who followed after him.
Through the opening in her tent Semiramis watched an army steal across the plain and disappear into a valley’s dip; then she slept, to dream of her home in Ascalon, of Dagon’s lake, of the creatures that swim therein, and of Menon—with a little green fish of malachite that nestled against his heart.
In a chamber beneath the citadel lay a sorely stricken man. In fever and pain he lay, and cried aloud to the far, unlistening gods. With tortured hands he groped on a darkened road and found no staff wherewith to feel his way. His book of light was closed; the water from his cup had spilled, and the glory of the world was gray.
The morning mists came writhing from their valley-beds, and the Hindu-Koh loomed red through an opal haze. A drowsing desert shrank from the heat to come, and the world awoke and yawned.
Now those who watched from the city wall, looked westward and were amazed, for down the hill-slopes came a swarm of warriors, fleeing as from the unclean boggards of an under-world; and after them ran other men, smiting with sword and shaft, till the shreds of a death-torn army came streaming across the plain. They poured through the city gate, choking it with the inrush of a bawling crew, while many fell panting, in the shadow of the wall; then Ninus, roused by a signal of alarm, drove, raging, into the press. Half clad, he leaned from his rocking chariot, lashing at all who came within his reach, cursing the cowardice of men who brought a shame to Assyria’s King.
Semiramis, too, awoke, and at the clamour of retreating men, her blood ran chill and she trembled for her lord. In haste she clothed herself, unmindful of her wounded knee, and limped to the city gates. She yearned to question each passer-by, and dared not, because of a terror clawing at her heart; so the daughter of Derketo crouched in a shadow of the wall, with parching tongue and hunted eyes, waiting, listening for the tidings which would blight the glory of her world.
King Ninus marked her coming, yet gave no sign, for now he had a part to play, wherein he would befool the craftiest of women to whom the gods had given breath and brain. He called aloud for Menon, but no answer came, nor were there any knowing aught of him since the rout began; so Ninus reviled them, swearing vengeance on all who had left their chieftain to perish among the hills. He gave command that a mighty force make ready for attack against the Bactrians, a force which he himself would lead, in search for Menon, held prisoner or dead; then, wheeling his chariot, drove swiftly to the citadel; and there, as he lashed his armor on, he chuckled joyously, for a lion had learned the wisdom of a fox.
From the shadow of the wall Semiramis groped her way toward her tent, numb, tearless, and with a sense of wonder at the strangeness of her grief. She seemed to look in pity, from afar, on this silent thing who set a helm upon her flaming locks and a breast-plate on a breast which now was dead. So the one Semiramis watched the other make ready for a journey into Hindu-Kush; she saw the silent one take up her hunting spear, mount on her chariot and drive to the city gate, where she-waited, shivering, in the glory of a summer sun.
When the King came forth to find her waiting there, his heart misgave him, for if Semiramis chanced to find the body of Akki-Bul in Menon’s armor, then in truth would the crust of Gibil’s pit be lifted from its fires. Therefore he sought to dissuade her will, saying that he himself would accomplish all things, while she remained at rest till her wound was healed; yet to his pleadings she answered naught, for to her his words were meaningless and like unto the idle whisperings of rain drops as they fell. She stood upon her chariot, gazing in silence out toward the prison of the hills which hid her lord, and waited for Assyria to move.
Then the King, in secret, gave command to all who followed him that if any came upon Menon’s body or the armor which he wore, no word of it should reach Semiramis, because of her consuming grief; and those who loved her, promised, and the army marched across the plains of Bactria.
To Semiramis came the faithful Huzim with a whispered word of hope. He seated her on the chariot’s floor and took the reins, while after them trotted Habal, for the dog, perchance, might lead the seekers where the cunning of man would falter on the trail. When the foot-hills were reached the chariot was left behind; Semiramis rode an unharnessed steed which Huzim led, and the toil of ascent began.
And now the slopes of Hindu-Kush awoke to the din of strife, for the hill rocks swarmed with Bactria’s fighting-men who loosened great stones upon the climbers, or smote them with down-flung spears and whistling shafts; and even as the voice of battle woke, so woke Semiramis from the slumber of her grief. In her veins ran the blood of two great passions which must ever rule the world—the passions of love and war—begotten in the lust-lock of Derketo and a battle-god.
Thus a child of passion went raging through the hills of Hindu-Kush, and where she might not climb, there Huzim bore her on his mighty back. At her side fought Asharal and the chiefs of Babylon, while about them was ever set a ring of the men of Naïri, those hairy mountaineers who sang as they battled; yet now, because of Menon whom they loved, the battle-chant was hushed upon their lips.
Upward they toiled, through valley and defile smiting their Bactrian enemies on every hand, pursuing them from crag to crag, or cutting off retreat; and where the foeman hid away in caverns, they were smoked therefrom and slain. So Assyria came at last to the mountain-top, surged through the pass and swept the slopes beyond, coming by night to the source of the hidden river-bed, while the Bactrians fled to the forest lands beyond, hiding in swampy glades where Ninus might not follow them.
When morning was come and a force had been left to guard the mouth of the river-bed, the Assyrian army once more breasted the mountain slope, and on the eastern side began a search for Menon, though the task was great. There were those who thought to find the spot whence the first assault had come, yet, by reason of the darkness which had made the marks on the mountain side seem strange, they found it not; nor might they trace it by the bodies of the slain, for the second battle had strewn the rocky wastes with dead, even as the field-man scatters grain.
For seven days the hunters combed the hills, while the sun poured down in fury, and from the sky great birds of prey descended to their feast; at approach they would reel away in lazy flight, mocking the seekers with discordant cries, then settle to some other dread repast. So the search went on in vain, and day by day the spirits of Ninus rose, for, if Semiramis came not upon the corpse of Akki-Bul, the monarch’s treachery would lie forever with the lost; then came to pass a happening which fitted the King’s desire, even as a sword may slide into its sheath.
The good dog Habal had hunted with his mistress and her slave, yet found no scent to lead them on their quest; and now as he snuffled along the edge of a precipice his footing gave beneath him, and, clawing at the loosened stones, the dog went whirling down into the depth below. As he fell, Semiramis cried out in pain and grief, for Habal she loved, with a love which woman only may fathom or understand. Sorrowing, she commanded Huzim to descend into the rift to learn if a spark of life remained within her dog; so the Indian went down.
The way was grievous, and at the bottom he was forced to stone away a flock of noisome vulture-birds; then he came upon Habal with the breath of life dashed out of him. The Indian stooped, yet paused in stark amaze, for the dead dog lay beside the body of a man—a man who wore Prince Menon’s armor and his broken helm; yet, because of heat and the beaks of birds, none now might see therein a semblance of the hapless Akki-Bul. Thus it seemed that, even in his death, a faithful beast had led his loved ones on the trail of the master whom he loved.
So Huzim climbed up to Semiramis, and, sorrowing, gave into her hand Prince Menon’s sword, together with a little green fish of malachite suspended on a leathern thong; and, seeing these things, her wails of anguish echoed throughout the hills, for now she knew in truth that her lord would come to her no more.
She would have clambered down to him, but Huzim dissuaded her, saying that the steeps would cause her wound to open; and again, it were better that she hold the memory of her lord in life than to look upon this rotting thing below. So Huzim, with Asharal and the men of Naïri, descended into the rift and left Semiramis weeping on the lip of the precipice.
They dug a grave and laid therein the body of Akki-Bul, dropping their tears upon it in the name of Menon, Prince of the house of Naïri; and with him they buried Habal, as every faithful dog would yearn to sleep, with his paws and muzzle resting on a master’s breast. Above, among the rocks, a thousand warriors watched, grim sons of battle and of blood, yet children now in the grip of unselfish grief. Semiramis they loved, because of the glory of the woman’s flesh and the glory of her deeds; her sorrows were even as their sorrows, so their hearts were sad within them, and they wept.
Then down the mountain side went the army of Assyria, to the foot-hills and across the hot brown plains, coming at last to the city of Zariaspa; and in the lead went Ninus, a chant of mourning on his lips, a song of passion in his heart.
Throughout the day Semiramis lay within her tent as one who is stricken by a sword, and Huzim sat beside her, cooling her brows with water, and driving the fever from her wound with ointment and pounded herbs. At evening came the King, with words of gentleness, mourning with her at the double loss of Menon and her shepherd dog; but she answered him and said:
“Nay, lord, mourn not because of Habal, for in his death the gods let fall a dew of comfort and of peace. In the rimless fields of the over-world my Menon is not alone, for Habal’s spirit hunteth at his master’s side.”
Now if this thought brought peace unto Semiramis, no peace it brought unto the King, for his cheek went pale beneath his beard. Since Menon had hung upon the wall and cursed him, swearing to lead the hounds of Ishtar on his trail, a dog was a dread abomination in his sight—a thing to bay his memory and patter after him on ghostly feet.
When night was come he tossed upon his couch in troubled dreams, watching a ghoulish army trail across the sky. Spirits they were of those he had sent to perish in the hills of Hindu-Kush; and in their lead flew Menon’s spirit—with the spirit of a dog in leash. And the King awoke and caused his torches to be lit.