THE CROWNING OF THE DEAD
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
Prince Ninyas, when he had brought his warnings to the King, fled not with him into Arabia, for he had no thought to risk his slothful bones in the peril of a war; therefore he hired a score of boatmen and was paddled up the Tigris till he came again to Nineveh.
Now in every land and in every city there are those who suffer with the worms of a strange unrest, and did their highest god come down to rule amongst them they would find some cause for disaffection, yearning for a change in government.
With men of this breed Prince Ninyas whispered, promising that when the throne was his a reign of peace should come to Nineveh, wherein the wormy ones might look for the fruits of their souls’ desire; so, when the Queen returned, and report was spread concerning the death of Ninus, then a million infant lies were born. They waxed in strength, these lies, till soon they muttered through the city streets; yet, because of the whip-hand of Semiramis, they muttered secretly.
Now secret discontent was ever hateful to the Queen, for she held that a man should bring his grievance to the stool of a justice, setting forth his wrongs in the manner of a man, else hold his tongue; therefore she sought to bring this trouble to a head and set her heel upon it, swiftly and with weight.
Through the streets ran scores of criers, with word that on the morrow would the court be held before the eyes of Nineveh; so when the morrow came the streets were packed with multitudes that surged toward the palace mound, waiting for weary hours before the appointed time, in expectancy of uncommon things. Dread whisperings went round about concerning the Queen who had slain the King, and who now would tax the people grievously, demanding their wealth to supply a treasury made lean; thus growlings arose on every hand, till the waiting crowds swarmed to and fro and fought amongst themselves.
To the ears of the High Priest Nakir-Kish came warnings of the Queen’s intent; so he hastened unto her, urging that she rule in wisdom, lest fierce internal wars ferment throughout Assyria. Semiramis looked upon him, smiling, and answered in a tone of softness which was like unto the purring of a cat:
“For thy wise advice I pay in humble gratitude; yet the tongue of a fool may oft’ undo him by its flutterings. Hold it, O Priest, and follow, thou, my will this day, lest, one by one, my servants shall draw thy teeth.” She paused and looked upon him keenly through her half closed lids. “It cometh to me that Nakir-Kish was ever close to Ninus, even in sins. Take, therefore, a further heed, lest thy bread be eaten with slowness and in pain.”
Then the priest went out from the presence of Semiramis, took council with himself and held his tongue; wherein the man was wise, for to wag it would bring him woe.
The palace steps ran down from the royal mound to an open square wherein were set the effigies of lions and wingéd bulls, and here the sons of Nineveh foregathered at the mandate of the Queen. At the head of this stairway, before the palace doors, was set Assyria’s double throne, while about it stood a ring of priests, and the chiefs of war in their battle-gear. Then, presently, Semiramis came forth, resplendent in her gem-sewn robes, and, descending the palace steps to a middle distance, she raised her arms to check the shouts of loud acclaim, then addressed the multitude:
“My children,” she called, “it hath come to mine ears that ye murmur amongst yourselves because of foolishness and lies—because I would take away what my hand hath given, and become a pilferer where ye look to find a friend. Know, then, that I, Shammuramat—Queen of Assyria—Mistress of the World—ask naught from any man!”
At her words a thunderous shouting rose, and men danced madly in their joy on the open square. One loud-mouthed warrior sprang upon the back of a wingéd bull and bawled to his friends below:
“Long reign the Queen! A curse on Ninyas—son of Ninus—and the Prince of Liars! A curse upon his evil tongue!”
The curse was taken up by five score thousand mouths, till the roarings rocked the palace mound, and the din was great; then Semiramis once more raised her arms and spoke to the seething multitude:
“Naught do I ask, my children, in taxes or in gifts; for now would I make a royal gift to you. The King is dead! He died in a distant land, where I followed after him because of his evil works. The King is dead; yet now do I give to you another King!”
She ceased. No shout arose, for her listeners stood silent, wondering if she thought to set the liar, Ninyas, on her throne; so they waited, each man drawing in his breath.
Through the palace doors strode Huzim, bearing a burden in his mighty arms—a burden which he set on Assyria’s double throne. 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. This, then, was the King whom Semiramis would give!
In silence the people gazed on Menon while one might count a score, then from their throats came a quivering wolf-lipped howl. No pæan of rejoicing rode that tempest-gust of sound, but the snarl of men whose passions were stirred to madness and to deeds of blood. Would Semiramis dare to crown this hideous thing?—this mockery of man who swayed in weakness as he sat on high? Nay, better to set a prince of liars on the throne! Better to crown a graven effigy! So the people howled their wrath and surged toward the palace steps, seeking to tear the idol from a woman’s shrine and stamp it in the dust.
About Semiramis were gathered her chiefs of war, Prince Asharal of Babylon, Boabdul Ben Hutt whose scimitar could match a score of swords, Huzim the faithful, Dagas who loved and whose shield was hers in any cause, while many more stout arms were there to work her will; but of these the Queen thought not as she faced the coming throng.
“Ye dogs!” she stormed, “am I to be sickened by the yelpings of your pack? Ye swine of Assyria! who have fattened on the plenty of Shammuramat! I who have puffed your bellies with the food of gods! Have done! Go down in peace, nor lay your tongues to idle mutterings! In peace, I say, lest I cease to love you and destroy you utterly!” She paused for an instant, then flung her hand toward her stricken mate, lifting her voice that all might hear and heed: “On a throne King Menon sitteth, and shall sit! Down! Down upon your knees and worship him, who is lord of my heart and lord of all the world!”
Now those who would have rushed upon her, paused at the very wonder of her love, and in that pause Semiramis turned and made a sign to Nakir-Kish. The High Priest would have set the crown on Menon’s head, but the head drooped forward, sinking upon his breast. His little strength had ebbed. The tumult of the populace below had seemed like the roar of battle in his ears, though the meaning thereof was strange to him, and he knew not that he was King. One thought alone was in his heart—Semiramis!—and to her he stretched his broken, wandering hands.
But the Queen would have her will. She snatched the crown from the High Priest Nakir-Kish and set it on Menon’s brow—a brow which now would never feel its royal weight, for a dead man slid from Assyria’s throne and fell upon his face.
And the people shouted not, but were very still, for beside the crownless King a weeping woman knelt—forgetful that the swine of all Assyria looked upon her grief—knowing only that the Mistress of the World had lost her world.