A PATH WHICH LED TO ITS STARTING POINT
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
King Ninus now rested from his war and disposed of the affairs of state. He sealed a treaty with Oxyartes whereby all Bactria lay subject to Assyria’s rule, each city paying yearly tribute to the King. King Oxyartes he took unto himself as a brother-chief, and in Zariaspa set up as Governor of Tax a man whose name was Tiglath-Shul, a chieftain who would likewise hold a force of warriors in command of the city wall.
When this was accomplished, Ninus brought before him the eunuchs Neb and Ura, and charged them to guard the prison door of Menon, suffering none to enter or learn the name of him who lay therein. Likewise he whispered in the ear of Tiglath-Shul, saying that a Bactrian hostage was being held in the keep below, and the head of a certain Governor would, mayhap, be forfeit for those who meddled in the King’s affairs. Therefore the Governor took council with himself, refrained from prying, and set a blight on all who were overcurious. Then Ninus, when other weighty matters had been put in order, commanded that the armies of Assyria depart on the homeward way.
Once more the marching host like a monster serpent crawling through the dust, crept upward among the hills, through the Pass of the Wedge now strewn with whitening bones, and down the rugged slopes beyond; through forest-lands and the countries of those who dwelt among the rocks, through Media ripening for a conquest by the King; scaling the Zagros mountains, and coming at last unto Arbela where the army sat down in weariness.
Throughout the journey Semiramis lay within her litter, holding speech with none save Huzim who ever sat on guard, while the King, albeit he yearned for a sight of her, restrained his ardor till her term of mourning passed and her grief had spent itself.
“Because,” he mused, “a fruit hath life so long as it hangeth on its mother-branch. But once may this fruit be plucked—no more; take, therefore, heed lest in plucking we find it green.”
So the lion persevered in the wisdom of the fox and broke not upon the seclusion of Semiramis; then, after a rest of twenty days, the army left Arbela, marched northward across the river Zab and thence to the eastern gate of Nineveh; and at their coming the people flocked to the city walls, with songs of rejoicing for the conquerors, with love-lit eyes for those who returned to waiting homes, with hunted eyes that watched in vain for others who slept in the vales of Hindu-Kush. Thus it came to pass that Nineveh was rent with joy and tears; for where the thousands wept into the ashes of their hearths, the tens of thousands steeped their hearts in wine, and laughed. Laughter and tears, entwined in a close embrace, for the joy of a man is ever his neighbor’s woe.
In the palace of the King there was likewise joy, much feasting and the dance of timbril-girls; then Ninus, in the gardens, came upon Sozana and Memetis who together had dwelt in happiness since the eunuch Kishra ran afoul of fate. An infant had been born to them, so Ninus tore his beard in wrath and gave his daughter in wedlock to the man; albeit he would have surely slain the Egyptian had Semiramis not pleaded mightily.
“Heed,” said she, “what profit in this deed of blood? What promise in a babe left fatherless? See what a sturdy little warrior, who, as Asshur liveth, hath the eye of Ninus and his very nose!”
Thus the wrath of the King grew less, as the wrath of man must ever grow beneath the soothing subtleties of a woman’s tongue. Then Semiramis shut herself within her chamber, communing with none save Sozana and the child; and thus through the life of seven moons she mourned for Menon, sitting by day in the garden’s shade, or at night on the palace roof, seeking for peace in the rays of Ishtar and her sister stars.
Now Ninus, who loved her, grew impatient of her grief, and sought by every art to contrive a wakening therefrom, yet in every pleasure set for her he failed; then came a time when he must journey in India to seal a covenant with that country’s King. So he summoned Huzim who was born of that land where the Indus runs, and spoke unto him, saying:
“Thy mistress pineth, dreaming in regret of things which even the high god Asshur may not mend. Plead, therefore, with Shammuramat, urging that she follow with Sozana in my train, and, perchance, the wonders of thy native land may rouse her from her sorrows and her lethargy.”
The Indian bowed before the King and promised, then sought his mistress in the gardens on the mound. He found her, seated beside the fountain’s pool, feeding the fishes that swam therein, while in her hand she held another fish—a little green thing of carven malachite suspended on a leathern thong. This saddened Huzim, yet he spoke to her concerning India, of the marvels of its mighty river and the game abounding on its marshy banks; he told her of other game, strange beasts that made their lairs within the jungle where hunters followed after them on the backs of other beasts; and as he spoke, the eyes of Huzim glowed in joy and his muscles quivered, even as the muscles of a battle-steed, for he yearned for his native land, and his hope ran high that his mistress might journey there.
Semiramis smiled in sadness, for she saw the hope in her servant’s heart, albeit she knew he would here remain at Nineveh through all his days rather than part from those he served.
“Ah, Huzim,” she sighed, as she laid a hand upon his mighty arm, “’tis even as my good lord Menon spoke to me on many a day, for in all the world thou art ever first in faith and love. Go, therefore, unto Ninus, saying that I, Shammuramat, wilt journey in his train to the land of my faithful Huzim, where the Indus runs and the sun is warm.”
The servant wept in gladness, and would have kissed her feet, but she raised him gently and bade him seek the King; so Huzim went out from Semiramis, rejoicing, with the half forgotten songs of childhood bubbling beneath his tongue.
Thus it came to pass that in royal barges, manned by boatmen of Phoenicia, King Ninus and his train fared down the Tigris, even to the point of its marriage with the Euphrates, and thence to the gulf beyond; and throughout the journey Semiramis sat apart with her tiring-maids, nor did the King pay court to her, but minded his own affairs in the wisdom of the fox.
At the gulf’s head they left their barges and climbed to the deck of a mighty ship which rocked upon the waters till the King and all his court were like to die of a sickness which came upon them; for Assyrians ever hate the sea, and now their inwards turned in riotous revolt. The King himself was assailed most grievously, for he groaned aloud in anguish, beseeching his servants that they slay him and have done with woe; yet the seizure passed at length, and after many days the great ship came to rest upon the Indus, while its two score oarsmen dropped among their chains, and slept.
At the river’s mouth King Khama met his royal visitor, with much rejoicing and the beating of wooden drums, and, after exchange of gifts and courtesies, King Ninus and all his train were paddled in bobbing reed-boats, till they came at last to Surya, the City of the Sun; and here rare feasts were held and the covenants of peace were duly sealed.
Then followed more feastings, with toothful dishes, and a native wine which provokes the heart to mirth, while before them came jugglers performing deeds of prodigy, and madmen who mocked at death in a snake-dance with the hooded cobra, till even Semiramis was stirred to pleasure and amaze.
To those of Assyria were the sacred rites of India made manifest in the temples of the fire-god Agni, and of Indra who ruled the open skies, while priests made offerings of the moon-plant’s milk, and melted butter which they set atrickle on the altar stones. In the fastness of the hills were viewed the shrines of the devil gods, where the wild-eyed Khonds made sacrifice to Siva the Destroyer, or to Kali, the goddess of dread iniquities, whose necklace was a string of human skulls.
When the guests were weary of sacred things, King Khama took them hunting, whereat the heart of Ninus rose from out the dust, while Semiramis smiled as Huzim gave into her hand a spear and an oddly fashioned bow. Then for many days they trailed through swamp and forest-land, slaying monsters in the thickets along the river shores, or hunting tawny jungle-beasts from the backs of elephants. These elephants, to Semiramis, were ever a wonder and a joy, because of their strength and the wisdom in their little eyes; yet to Ninus they brought no joy, for their motion recalled the heavings of a ship and took away his zest of life and of all things contained therein. Therefore he bestrode a steed, or met his game on foot and slew it in the glory of his strength.
Thus Semiramis awoke from her lethargy of grief, and, albeit, she sorrowed still, her blood ran quickly through her veins, while laughter rose upon her lips and was not stayed; whereat the King was glad, and in his gladness begged that she choose a gift from out the riches of this marvelous land. She pondered thoughtfully, then voiced a desire so strange that Ninus stared upon her and combed at his beard in wonderment:
“My lord, I thank thee, and of thy bounty will ask a thousand sheaves of reeds, with two score reeds in every sheaf thereof.”
Now on the river marshes grew these reeds, to a heighth three times the stature of a man, and were light of weight and strong; also their outer rind was hard, so that fishermen fashioned boats of them, and the water came not in. Likewise, so plentiful they were that a beggar might build him a house of reeds and thatch his roof, or feed them to his fires.
Thus Semiramis chose a worthless seeming gift, when she might have picked from the jewels of a wonder-land, yet when Ninus questioned her concerning the folly of her choice, she laughed and would tell him nothing of her thoughts; so the thousand sheaves of reeds were dispatched to Nineveh, though the labor and the cost thereof was great.
And now came a final feast, with a parting from India’s King, and the train of Ninus faced its homeward way; albeit they journeyed not upon a heaving ship, for the master swore by the thunder of the gods that nevermore would he rive his belly on a thrice accursed sea. Therefore they marched by land along the coast, hunting much game as they fared at easy pace, till they came again to the Tigris where the boats awaited to bear them on to Nineveh.
As they journeyed slowly up this stream, the King paid court unto Semiramis, but at first she would answer nothing to his prayers. With the death of Menon her heart had died within her breast, and never again could she look with love on any man; yet, since the passion of love was spent, it left in her heart full sweep for that other passion—the passion of power—to wind the skein of destiny, or snap it as she would. She yearned to say unto a nation, Go! and to another nation, Come!—to shape the ends of the peoples of the earth—to cause them to bow into the dust and worship one who could lift them up again. How better then, could this passion of desire be wrought than in mating with Assyria’s lord? To barter one human body in exchange for dominion over all the world! True, Ninus drove the chariot of state, yet she had but to whisper in the driver’s ear to turn the course of its plunging steeds. If Ninus held the reins, a woman held the lash—and, by the smoke of Gibil, she would lay it on!
Thus dreamed Semiramis, while about her the waters of the Tigris crooned their chant of mystery; above, the great stars hung, and flung their burning meteors across the sky; the marshes throbbed with the drone of things invisible and though the gloom rose the vast black walls of Nineveh.
Semiramis, weeping, clung still to a thread of memory—a thread which stretched from a grave in the Hindu-Kush to the steps of Assyria’s throne; yet strand by strand it parted, till at last it snapped, and into the Tigris her trailing hand let fall a little green fish of carven malachite.
The great brown city woke to the thunder-throated voice of festival; the princes of the world foregathered there in honor of the King who would take Semiramis to wife. From every land they came, together with their followers in arms, and Nineveh resounded with the shoutings of foreign tongues. In the temples on every hill great fires were lit, and the nostrils of the gods were filled with the smoke of sacrifice, while Nakir-Kish and his swarm of under-priests slew flocks of cranes and found in every one an omen of joy unutterable. Through the streets ran youths and maidens twined with flowers, exchanging favors freely in this gladsome hour when none need count the cost. The warriors might quench their thirst at brimming tubs of wine, with naught to pay save shouts for Assyria’s Queen; so they drank to the verge of madness and fought fiercely among themselves, for their hearts were glad.
Likewise, the forests and the fields were swept for meat wherewith to feed the multitudes, for Ninus dipped into his treasures with a reckless hand, even as men in the drunkenness of joy will ever squander all their substance, regretting it sorely in the sober after-days.
In the palace, the wealth of kingdoms sank from sight through feastings of costly foolishness, where jewels were baked in the very bread, and the bidden guests would oft’times break their teeth thereon; albeit they kept the jewels, smiling at their pain. Then the King, who was mad with love, went forth and set Semiramis upon a chariot of gold, driving her slowly through the streets, so that all might behold the glory of her charms. He bade his people worship her, and as they knelt he scattered treasures on their heads, till the worshippers vied viciously among themselves, seeking this wealth in the whirling dust where they battled with fists and nails.
At last came the wedding rites, and as Semiramis sat with Ninus on his throne, the palace rocked with bellowing acclaim; then followed more feasting, with the din of music, the songs of thickening tongues, and all Assyria was glad save one alone. Through the reek of flaring torches and the fumes of wine, a woman fled to the peace of the silent roof; yet the echoes of joy came climbing after her, hounding her heart with the memories of other days—the whisper-ghosts that would not die, though crushed beneath a throne.
On her knees the woman fell, and flung her arms toward the dim, unlistening stars.
“Oh, Menon, Menon,” she cried aloud, “how empty is the world without the solace of thy kisses on my breast!”
Thus it came to pass that the nursling of doves made a nest on Assyria’s throne. For a year she dwelt in the master’s house, and bore him a son whose name was Ninyas; albeit Semiramis never loved the child, who was weak and petulant, of a slothful nature and a selfish heart—a son who in after days would seek his mother’s death, then reign in besotted idleness and squander the strength of a kingdom built on swords.
Now Ninus loved his Queen, to the verge of madness, and naught was there which he would not do to gladden her or indulge her whims; yet Semiramis loved not the King, for in her heart rose ever the image of one man alone—Menon the Beautiful—who dwelt with the dead in a valley of Hindu-Kush.
Thus, since her passion slumbered with him who would wake no more, ambition borrowed of love’s desire and rode on a chariot of war. War, red war! till the peace of remotest lands was rent by the screams of battle-horns. Thus the kingdom of Assyria grew apace. The fathers of men had fashioned a map of the countries of all the world; yet it fitted not the fancy of Semiramis, so the War Queen changed it, with a finger dipped in blood.
Where the fury of battle knotted its tightest snarl, there she would drive her chariot, to leap at the throat of danger, breast the surf of death, ride over it, and leave a crimson trail behind. And the warriors bowed down and worshipped her, half in unknowing passion, half in awe, forgetting the glory of the high god Asshur in the glory of a woman-god. As she rode in her chariot of gold, so she rode in the hearts of men, driving them on with a feather-lash, yet driving where she willed; and Ninus became not jealous of her worship or her deeds, for the Queen was his, and the glory of Shammuramat was, also, his.
As the years of war went by, she changed not in the beauty of form and face, for her strange, unearthly charms remained with her, thus causing all to wonder at her immortality; yet with Ninus it was otherwise. Grizzled he grew; the furrows of age ran, straggling, across his brow, and his great beard whitened, even as the coat of a battle-steed is streaked with foam. There were moments when his wrath would burst all bounds, without a cause therefor, and he seemed a man who harkened to a whisper-ghost that hunted him and worried at his ears. Each year a trusted messenger brought report from Zariaspa that Menon’s spirit still tarried in the body of the man; yet the master knew no peace throughout his days, and a dog was ever hateful in his sight. By night he would awaken at the distant baying of a hound, then lie in the sweat of fear, huddling for comfort at a woman’s side.
The finger of Fate swept slowly round in a circle of a score of years, and the monarch’s path of evil led homeward to its starting point. In the Zagros mountain lay a mighty gap through which, in after years, would pour a race of the white-skinned sons of Iran, conquering the world and holding proud dominion till the end of time; and through this gap now crept a train of Bactrians, hiding by day and faring forth again in the hours of night. With them they bore a curtained litter wherein lay a man whose fingers curved like the claws of birds, whose feet were shrivelled so that he might not stand thereon, and his weak hands wandered always, as if groping on a darkened road.
Nearer, nearer drew this blind, misshapen thing, moaning as his litter rocked from side to side, helpless, shorn of strength; yet better far for Ninus had the hounds of Ishtar fallen on his trail. Outside the walls the Bactrian train lay hidden in the night; then, presently, a warrior chief came knocking at the gates of Nineveh.