WHEN A WOMAN RULED THE WORLD
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
In the palace of the King there was revelry unstinted, for a change had come upon Semiramis. Through the score of years when she reigned with Ninus, she had paid the tribute of a wife, in sufferance of love which she gave not back again, bearing his son, while her heart roved ever through the hills of Hindu-Kush. She graced his throne and added to his kingdom’s power; she ruled his house and gave obedience to her lord; yet the King asked more. He asked for all, not tithes, but the utmost treasure of a woman’s heart—her smiles, her yearnings, and the fruits of love which ripened for her mate alone; and now, when the frost of age was set as a helm upon his locks, the hope of youth burst forth to flower again.
Semiramis smiled upon the King, and there was somewhat in her eyes which sent the hot blood bounding through his veins, which caused his breath to flow the faster and his hand to tremble in a lingering caress. Her beauty was for him—the master of men—the lord of a woman’s yielding soul—the love-mad king who groveled at a shrine of craft.
So Semiramis suffered the King’s caress, smiling her smiles of promise, while she hushed the curses of her fury-throated hate. She waited now, even as the tigress stalks her kill, patient, tireless, crouching till a shifting wind had passed, to rise again and steal toward the pouncing-point. King Ninus she might have slain by day or night, and there were moments when her fingers clung to a weapon hungrily; yet the King was King, and his nation might not be slain. Nay, first must she strip this man of a nation’s love, strip him to the very nakedness of guilt, then nail him to a wall of suffering, even as Menon hung upon a wall of stone. So the tigress waited, and her quarry frolicked through the fields of pleasant ways.
High revelry resounded on the palace mound, till the echoes thereof were borne to a distant chamber where Huzim sat on guard, where Semiramis would steal from the hateful feasts and comfort Menon, till the whisper of wisdom urged return. And the King was mad with love, haunting her footsteps, heaping her lap with his splendid gifts; yet his gifts she would not receive, and retreated from the ardor of his love. She lured him to a deeper madness still, drawing him on by every artful charm, repulsing in a gust of petulance; now warm, now cold, till Ninus knew not if he stood upon his royal head or upon his royal heels. She withdrew to her chamber, heedless of his knockings and his calls, till his soul became afraid of losing her again, and he followed her with pleadings and with prayers. At his prayers she scoffed; at his wrath she answered with a higher wrath, then, of a sudden, gave freely where he had not asked.
Thus Ninus marveled at the strangeness of her mind, and begged that she ask of him such gifts as would please her best, for he swore by the robe of Shamashi-Ramân that none might fathom aught at all in the wilderness of a woman’s whims.
At his offer of gifts, the Queen took thought, pondering upon it for the space of a day and night; then she came unto him, saying:
“My lord, if thou wouldst please me best, go hunt for lions in the thickets along the Euphrates.”
“Eh—what?” cried the King, thinking she sought to banish him from his bed and board; but she laughed and laid her hand upon his arm.
“Nay, lord, grieve not at parting from my side, for, as Ishtar liveth, I swear to follow after thee!” Again she laughed, to smooth the hidden meaning of her oath, and smiled upon him as her tongue tripped on: “Yet in thy absence I would reign as Queen of all Assyria—to rule alone—for the span of one short moon. Give, thus, the chariot of state into my hands, and Shammuramat will drive it, to the wonder of her lord and King.”
Once more the master looked upon the promise in her eyes—strange orbs that swam in passion’s misty light—and though the voice of wisdom cried aloud against this thing, the voice of love cried, also, till the tongue of warning ceased to clamor and was still. Thus it came to pass that Ninus and his hunters rode toward the south, while criers ran through the streets of Nineveh, proclaiming the Queen as Ruler Absolute, for the life of a summer moon.
Now as these criers ran, so ran a host of other messengers, bidding the warrior chiefs of every land to appear at court, while their followers might feast within the city walls, nor pay the reckoning thereof. So, while the master hunted beasts, the mistress hunted men. She brought them to her board and feasted them, till hunger and thirst could ask no more. She made such gifts as never a pillaged city yielded to a conqueror, and even the mouths of beggars she filled with gold. To those in office she gave a higher office still, with dream-land promises to all who sought to climb; but to their wives and daughters she offered naught, nor gave; for her thoughts were now of men—the fighting men from the face of all the earth, who would rise as one and dash a monarch from his throne.
Since that by-gone day when she set Prince Asharal again into his place, proud Babylon, to a man, was hers; yet now she wanted more than Babylon. She wanted the warriors of Assyria—the warriors who had worshipped Ninus as a god. She wanted the blood and bone which had raised him up on high—and she wanted them to stamp him in the dust from whence he sprung.
So, now, through Nineveh rang the voice of joy, the voice of feastings and the voice of praise; and on these several tongues the name of Ninus sounded not, but in its place one mad, tumultuous roar—Shammuramat!
Queen of the Moon they called her, and she smiled upon their happiness, and gave and gave. She sapped the country bare of wine and food. She flung her gems amongst them as a drunken sower scatters grain. She spilled the blood of a nation’s wealth, till the treasury staggered in the manner of a wounded ox, and still she smiled; smiled though her heart was breaking for a man—alight with the flames of Gibil for another man.
Thus it came to pass, at the waning of the moon, that one last feast was held in the hall of the spendthrift Queen, a hall now choked with a press of warrior chiefs and the princes of the world, grim fighters who wore their swords and battle-scars. Such men alone were bidden to the feast—such men who in secret loved the Queen, yet dared not lay a tongue to the telling of their love.
Then unto these sons of war came the mistress of Assyria, not in her gem-sewn robes of state, but in the armor of a battle-queen. On her breasts were set her nipple-plates of gold; on her flame-hued locks that helm which had flashed like star-fire through the ruck of war. Across her shoulders was flung a leopard skin, and her arms were bare, stripped of all save the bands of bronze which bound the sinews of her wrists. No longer was she the laughing imp who had charged against the Kurds, but a woman—a queen—a tempest-hearted battle-hawk.
At her coming no man spoke, but looked in awe, till presently—they knew not why—the silence was rent by thunders of acclaim, and the Queen bowed low before the sons of war. No smile she gave in greeting; no light-lipped laughter to these men who had followed her through storm and sun; but on her face rode a look of fierce resolve which caused them to wait the coming of uncertain things.
In silence she bade them sit; in silence she sat amongst them, albeit she caused one seat to be vacant at her side; then in silence the feast began. It was not the like of her other feasts, for before them was set the simple fare of warriors afield; and where the wine of Syria was wont to slake their thirst, each found a cup of water at his hand. The Queen sought not their drunken passion which would die before the morrow’s sun, for now she would feed their hearts on the flesh of truth and mix their lasting curses with her own. Thus each man, marveling, ate in silence and waited for the coming of the storm; and then, when the feast was done at last, Semiramis arose and spoke:
“My brothers,” she began, “brothers in war, in love, in the days of idleness and peace, the heart of your Queen is sad. As I share with you the bounty of my throne, so now I share my sorrows, giving each a part; yet, ere I bare my grief, I would ask if there be any here to offer me reproach. If there be one to say that Shammuramat hath sent him into danger where she herself would fear to lead, speak now, that I brand him liar! Come forth and say injustice hath been done to any man—that I looked with lack of pity on a wound, or gave not of my own to all who hungered and were athirst! Come forth, my brothers, and name the price of one grievance unavenged, that I, your sister and your Queen, may pay it ere I bare my heart!”
None spoke; yet a growling murmur rose, and each man looked upon his fellow fiercely, daring him to loose a tongue, lest his blood be loosed to wash away the lie.
Semiramis had paused, but she lifted up her voice once more. As in days of old she had played upon the hearts of men, even as a harper sounds the chords of curses and of tears, so now she played again. She told them of her home in Ascalon, and how Prince Menon came to wake her soul. She told them of her wedded years wherein her lord had striven for the King—had conquered Zariaspa and stood with her upon the fallen citadel.
“And you,” she cried, “who loved him! You who shared his bounty and the peril of his wars! You who stood with me on a vale’s lip in the Hindu-Kush and saw him buried in the earth! What! Know you not that his armor alone is buried there? For in his armor lay a rotting lie! A lie! For Habal—my good dog Habal—sleepeth with his paws and muzzle on a stranger’s breast! A lie, I say! A lie! For Menon liveth and by Ninus was crucified!”
The shrill voice ceased. It had risen to the scream of a tigress calling to her mate; but now no answering roar burst forth in echo of her call. The sons of Assyria sat silent—wondering. All had heard the tale of Prince Menon’s death, and many had seen him laid away to sleep. On the vale’s lip they had wept for a man they loved. They had seen—had known! How, then, should the dead arise to life again? Semiramis had branded ears and eyes as the keepers of a lie—a lie which dragged the gods of honor down and damned them! Aye, a lie; but should it rise to point its finger at a King, or point it at a Queen? So each man cast his gaze upon the floor and sat in silence—wondering.
Semiramis smote her palms together, thrice. At the sign, a door swung open and Huzim strode in, bearing a burden in his arms, a burden which he set upon the vacant seat beside the Queen. A man it was, or the semblance of a man, whose eyes were blind; whose form was shrunken, and whose hands were curved in the manner of horrid claws.
“Look!” cried the Mistress of the World. “Look ye upon this torn, misshapen thing who was once the glory of a woman’s heart! Look ye and learn from him what the King hath wrought—for you who loved him—and for me! Look! for a lie hath risen from the grave, and liveth to mark its own!”
In awe they gathered round him, though they knew him not, by reason of the horror of his state; but the warriors Prince Menon knew, and voiced his joy in meeting them again; weeping as he found the features of old friends with his wandering finger-tips; sobbing as he called them each by name, or whispered secrets known to him and their hearts alone. Then Huzim raised him up, and he called aloud on the sons of Naïri, his children of war, who would harken to a father’s battle-cry; and as that cry rang out, they knew him once again, and knelt before him, weeping bitterly.
“And now,” called Semiramis to her kneeling warriors, “I ask that you follow me to pluck a vulture from his roost on Assyria’s throne! To cast him out, as a father might cast a serpent from the bosom of his babe! The King! who hath shorn me of my joy in life! The King! who hath stolen away my lord—who caused me to bear him a bastard son—who hath made a strumpet of your Queen! The King! The King no more! Naught do I ask but justice! Give me this, or the edge of your pitying swords!”
She ceased. She knelt at the side of her stricken mate and held him in the cradle of her arms, her eyes upturned to those who shared her suffering. From the throats of these men there came no shout of fury at the King, no wrathful curse, no sound save the wrench of a stifled sob; yet on their faces rode a look of death, as each man drew his sword and laid it at the feet of the undone Mistress of the World.
As the feast had passed in silence, so now these men departed one by one, and, treading softly, went out into the night; then each sought out his home or tent, and slept—to dream and mutter curses in his troubled sleep.
Through the western gate passed a troop of horse, swinging toward the south and riding as the spirits drive.
It is written of Ninyas, son of Semiramis and the King, that never one good deed came out of him; and now he rode with warnings to his father in the south, who straightway fled into Arabia, seeking a shield in the desert’s sands and a sword in Boabdul’s scimitar.
It was Ninyas who turned against his mother in her hour of stress. It was Ninyas who, in after years, spread forth report that Semiramis had lied—that Menon had hanged himself in Bactria—that the Queen had set a maimed imposter in his place to accomplish her evil ends.
Yet, as Ninyas reigned in sloth and foul debauchery, so judgment came upon him at last. As his heart was false, so also, his tongue was false, for who will credit aught of him who has turned against a mother in her hour of stress?
Through the long blue night Semiramis sat beside her withered lord; and if she had loved him on the temple steps at Ascalon, when he lay in the splendid beauty of his youth, so now she loved him a hundred fold when the wine of his life was spilled for her. What matter though his hands were curved and his eyes were blind? What matter though his outer shell was dead? The heart of the man still lived, and it beat for her alone. Together they had hunted through the desert for a grain of sand, and, finding it, were glad, for they knew that its name was Love.
When morning came stealing down on Nineveh, the city awoke and growled. A loose-tongued warrior had whispered to his wife; his wife had whispered to a neighbor’s wife,—and the city knew. Through the streets ran men who were swollen with the bounty of Semiramis, and with them foregathered other men—lean dogs who licked their chops and gazed on the glories of more benefits to come. So Nineveh woke to growlings, which grew into a bark of wrath, till, from end to end, the Opal of the East gave tongue, frothing, struggling at the leash, and yearning to leap like the hounds of Ishtar on a master’s trail.
Thus, after a space, the western gate was opened wide, and through it poured the war-hounds of Assyria. Southward they swung, and in their lead rode a queenly hunter in her battle-gear—for Semiramis had kept her oath to Ninus, and would follow after him.