THE CRY OF THE TIGRESS TO HER MATE
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
Semiramis, Queen of all Assyria, sat in the royal gardens, in the light of a great round moon which swung above the walls of Nineveh. About her were grouped her maidens, lolling on the fountain’s rim, splashing their tiny feet in the coolness of the waves, while their laughter vied with the gurgling music of a water-song. This song burst forth from the fountain’s heart, low, soothing, in the summer night, yet was marred of a sudden by the shrieks of Ziffa, a timorous maiden from the north on whose white knee a clammy little frog had sprung. So Ziffa shrieked, till saved by a laughing warrior, the son of Sozana and Memetis, now grown into a man; then the maidens crowned him with a wreath of lily leaves, and their merriment waxed shrill in the gladsome foolishness of youth.
In this harmless mirth Semiramis took no part, for to-night her heart was sad. Her fancy roved through the thickets of a score of years, led on by a thread of memory, and lingered in the vale of Hindu-Kush. Again she looked upon the everlasting hills and the plain below, that thirsty plain on which her cup of water had been spilled, which drank her joy and made a brother-desert of her soul.
As she sat apart, her great eyes lifted to the glow of Ishtar’s trail, a man-at-arms came clanking down the garden path, bearing report that a stranger waited beyond the wall with a message for the Queen alone. His name was Dagas, a Bactrian warrior, and, as surety of faith and good intent, he sent a jeweled ring, declaring that Assyria’s Queen once wore it on her hand.
Semiramis took the jewel, which in truth had been her own, and, remembering, laughed aloud. This Dagas was the same whom her wits befooled in the foot-hills of Hindu-Kush, when she claimed a sisterhood to Oxyartes and sent the Bactrian seeking for an army of phantom warriors. So, laughing again, she dismissed her maidens and suffered Dagas to approach alone.
He knelt before her, pressing her sandal to his lips, then at her bidding rose, and gave her smile for smile; no longer the beardless youth, but a grizzled man of war, on whom the heel of years had trod and set its mark. She looked upon him now, remembering how her charms had dazzled him in the day of long ago, so she smiled again and spoke in gentleness:
“Ah, Dagas, thou has come at last to reproach me for deceiving thee. In exchange for Zariaspa I gave thee a jewel and a lie. For thee an evil bartering, my Dagas; yet ask of my bounty, and receive. What wouldst thou?”
“Naught,” returned the Bactrian, with a sigh, “naught save thy memory of one who hath loved Shammuramat, and who loveth still.”
To the eyes of the woman leaped the fires of wrath, for how should a slave presume to babble of his love?—for her—the Queen of all Assyria! She would have clapped her hands in summons of her guard to slay the dog, yet Dagas restrained her gently, smiling as he shook his head.
“Nay, Mistress of the World, I speak not of myself, albeit of myself the same is true; for while I wore thy ring I took no wife unto my breast, no hope unto my heart. For another I plead—for one who shall grope in darkness all his days—yet in his hell of everlasting night, one cry hath rung through the empty hall of years—one heart-cry beating at the doors of life—Shammuramat!”
The Bactrian ceased. The Queen, in wonder, was silent, too, for the words of the man seemed strange and meaningless. Yet why should the dead arise to life? Why should the thread of memory become a chain and drag her back to her lord of other days?—to Menon the Beautiful—he who had torn the veil of Ishtar, and bade her look on the naked glory of a heart!
“Speak,” she whispered, watching Dagas, as before she watched in the shadow of Zariaspa’s wall, waiting, listening, for tidings of the lost; and Dagas spoke.
He told her of a pestilence which had run through his city’s streets, knocking at the doors of beggar and of prince till those who might took refuge in the hills, while others remained because of poverty or lack of fear, and died. Among the stricken were two Egyptian eunuchs, Neb and Ura, who guarded a certain prisoner by command of Tiglath-Shul; yet when these eunuchs died, the Governor set Dagas and a brother warrior as keepers of the man. They had ministered to this prisoner, whose eyes were blind and whose hands and feet were useless by reason of his being nailed against the wall.
“And so,” said Dagas, “in sorrow of his state, I sought to hearten him, and became his friend. To me he told his tale, in the truth whereof I may not vouch, for it brandeth him as madman, or else the saddest son of chance since tears were fashioned by the pitying gods.”
Semiramis made no answer, but she raised her trembling hand, so that Dagas understood and spoke again:
“By night, by day, he pleaded with me, saying: I am Menon, Prince of the House of Naïri, whom Ninus hath crucified. Go, thou, unto my wife Shammuramat and tell her of this thing—tell her I swear it by her kisses on the temple steps at Ascalon! And if she doubt thee still, say thou of me, in her parting words, that the garment of her love hath gone, and the joy of the world is but as a cup of water spilled!”
The Bactrian ceased. Semiramis sat, silent, on the garden seat; no longer Queen of proud Assyria—Mistress of the World—but the woman, stripped of royalty and power; the woman, crouching in a huddled heap, whence two great eyes looked out and suffered; eyes which would have shrieked, had tongues been given them, yet staring now, in the terror of a stricken beast.
Through the gardens floated laughter—song—the tinkling mirth of zitherns softly played. On the night breeze ran the hum of Nineveh, joyous, flinging care to the seven winds; and a woman’s heart was wondering at the strangeness of it all. Menon lived! Menon the Beautiful who had died in the glory of his youth! Yet Menon lived! Who, then, lay down with Habal in the vale of Hindu-Kush? Speak, Ishtar! Who?
No answer came, till Dagas, in tones of gentleness, told her how this man had journeyed out of Bactria and now lay hidden beyond the city wall; then Semiramis arose and spoke, though her voice was as the voice of some other woman, broken and unknown to her;
“Go, thou, with my servant Huzim and bring him in secret unto me.”
She spoke no more, nor did she offer gold or gratitude to him who had proved devotion rare among the sons of men; yet the Mistress of the World bent down and pressed her lips to the hand of an humble warrior.
Huzim and Dagas came to the hiding-place where Menon lay, and the servant knew not his master, because of his shrunken form and the hair which grew upon his cheeks and chin; yet in Huzim’s arms the master lay sobbing out his joy, till the servant knew, rejoicing that the dead had risen up to live again.
They cut away his beard, washed him, and clothed his form in a garment of fine-spun wool; then they bore him in secret to a chamber on the palace mound.
And Semiramis came in to him—alone—for on that meeting nor you nor I may seek to look, when even the goddess Ishtar might have turned away in pity and in pain.
Through the long blue night he lay with his head upon her breast, weeping, babbling of the aching solitude of his prison years, caressing her hair, her features, with the crooked fingers which were now his eyes. And Semiramis rocked him in the cradle of her arms, as she might have rocked a babe, soothing, whispering her love to this poor misshapen thing, crooning, till he slept at last, to forget the tangle of his joy and grief.
Then the Queen of Assyria stole away—away from the horror of it—seeking the housetop, where none might see, where none might hear, where none might follow save the ghosts of pain. On the roof she stood and opened her robe to the cool, sweet breath of the morning stars. She looked upon Bêlit riding down the sky; she looked upon sleeping Nineveh which was builded by the King. The King! who had builded up another curse and set its walls on a woman’s heart—its palace on a woman’s shame! The King! who had wrenched the glory from a woman’s soul and crucified it!
And now, when her soul could bear no more, she loosed one long-drawn, quivering scream—the cry of the tigress to her stricken mate.