"Mailzis," said the prince, "some spiced wine for us."
In the enjoyment of this truly refreshing, because unfermented beverage, we listened to the following thrilling narrative:
"Thou art, I think, acquainted with my native country, since thou hast had commercial intercourse with the Sald nation. All here have likewise heard of how our ruler sent a great army against the terrible Suerni. Ah! how little we knew of those people!" she exclaimed, clasping her small, patrician hands in an agony of terrified retrospection.
"Eight score thousand warriors had my father, the chief, under his command. One-half as many more were followers of the camp. Our cavalry was our pride, veterans tried and true, and ah! so lustful after blood! Such splendid armament had we, glittering spears and lances--oh! a wondrous array of valiant men!"
At this eulogy of such primitive weapons her listeners were unable to repress a shadowy smile. For a moment this seemed to disconcert the princess, but not for long, for she continued:
"In this splendid, powerful fashion, ah! how I love power! we cam, taking loot as we proceeded towards the Suern city.
When we arrived near it, after many days, we could not see it, as it was in a lowland. But we felt assured of an easy victory, since captives whom we took informed us that no walls or like defenses existed and that no army was gathered to meet us. Indeed, we nowhere found walled towns in all Suern, nor met with resistance, hence had spilled no blood, but contented ourselves with torture of the captives, by way of amusement, ere we set them free."
"Horrible!" muttered Menax under his breath. "Heartless barbarians!"
"What saidst thou, my lord?" asked the girl, quickly.
"Nothing, my lady, nothing! I but thought of the splendid march of the Saldan host."
Though seemingly somewhat doubtful of the accuracy of this statement, the Saldu nevertheless continued her recital.
"Arrived, as I have said, we stayed our march on the brink of a shallow, but wide defile, wherein the Rai was so unwarlike and unwise as to have his capital, and sent a messenger to announce our errand and offer him favorable terms of war. In answer there came with our flagbearer a solitary, unarmed old man. Elderly is a better word. He was tall, erect as soldier, and had dignity of mien that made him splendid to look upon. Aye, he looked as power incarnate! I ought to hate him, but he is powerful and I cannot choose but love him! If he were younger I would woo him to be my mate."
At this unexpected remark we looked at, the fair speaker in amazement, not unmingled with other emotions, while Prince Menax asked:
"Astiku, hear I aright? Woo a man? Is it customary amongst thy people to give unto woman the lovemaking? I had thought myself versed in the customs of every nation, ancient and modern, yet knew not this fact. However, strange things are to be expected of--well, a race which has but numbers to entitle it to recognition at the hands of people like the Poseid."
"Why not be frank, Zo Astika? Why not say what thou thinkest, that civilized nations like thine consider such a
race as the Saldi beneath them so far that even their customs are well nigh unknown to thee?"
Prince Menax flushed deeply in ashamed confusion, for he was unaccustomed to prevarication, and replied:
"Candor is best, I admit; but I desired to avoid wounding thy feelings, Astika."
With a ringing laugh, full of amusement, the Astiki said:
"Zo Astika, allow me to tell thee that in Sald, either sex is free to woo its chosen one. Why not? It is sensible, methinks. I shall follow our custom in this respect, if chance ever presents. My chosen one must be pleasing to look upon, and must be courageous like unto the lion of the desert, yea! even the deserts whence he came unto the continent of Suernota. Ah, me; yes, if chance offers," she reiterated, with a little sigh.
At length she resumed wearily, sadly:
"The Astika, my father, chief of our armies, said to this grand old man:
"'What saith thy ruler?'
"'He saith: "Bid this stranger depart lest my wrath awake, for lo, I shall smite him if he obey me not! Terrible is mine anger."
"'What ho! And his army; I have seen none,' said my father with the laugh of a veteran to whom despised resistance is offered.
"'Chief,' said the envoy, in a low, earnest tone, 'Thou hadst best depart. I am that Rai, and his army also. Leave this land now; soon thou canst not. Go, I implore thee!'
"'Thou the Rai? Rash man! I tell thee that when the sun hath moved one other sign, thy courage shall not save thee, unless thou wilt now return and collect thine army. Else will I then send thy head to thy people. There is but this option. After that length of time I will strike and sack thy city. Nay, fear not now for thy personal safety; I cannot hurt an unarmed foeman! Go in peace, and by the morning I will attack thee and thy army. I must have a worthy foe.'
"'In myself is a worthy foe. Hast thou never heard of the
Suerni? Yes? And thou hast not believed! Oh, it is true! Go, I entreat thee, while yet thou canst do so in safety!'
"'Foolish man!' said the chief. 'This thine ultimatum? Then be it so! Stand aside! I go not away, but forward.' Then he called unto the captains of the legions and commanded:
"'Forward! March to conquer!'
"'Withhold that order one moment; I would ask a question,' said the Rai.
"Agreeably to this request our men, who had sprung to place at the word, were now halted with arms at rest. In the very front ranks of the Saldan army as it stood on the little eminence overlooking the Suern capital, and the great river flowing near, was the prime flower of our host. Veterans they were, tried and true, men of giant stature, two thousand strong, leaders of the men less seasoned. I shall never forget how grand looked that array, no, never. So strong; the very mane of our lion-power, every man able to carry an ox on his back. The sun was caught on their spears in a glorious blaze of light. Looking upon these men the Suerna said:
"'Astika, are not these thy best men?'
"'They are the ones of whom it hath been told me that they tortured my people, merely for amusement? And they called them cowards, saying that men who would not resist, to them should they serve death, and they did murder a few of my subjects?'
"'I deny it not,' said my father
"'Thinkest thou, Astika, that this was right? Are not men who glory in shedding blood worthy of death?'
"'Possibly; if so, what matter? Perchance thou wouldst have me punish them for such action?' said my father, scornfully.
"'Even so, Astika. And thereafter depart hence?'
"'Aye, that will I! 'Tis a good jest; yet have I not humor for jesting!'
"'And thou wilt not go, though I say to remain is death?'
"'Nay! Cease thy drivel! I weary of it.'
"'Astika, I am sorrowful! But be it as thou wilt. Thou hast been warned to leave. Thou hast heard of the power of the Suern, and believed not. But now, feel it!'
"With these words the Rai swept his outpointing index-finger over the place where stood our pride--the splendid two thousand. His lips moved and I barely heard the low-spoken words:
"'Yeovah, strengthen my weakness. So dieth stubborn guilt.'
"What then befell so filled all spectators with horror, so wrought upon their superstition, that for full five minutes after, scarce a sound was heard. Of all those veteran warriors not one was left alive. At the gesture of the Suernis their heads fell forward, their grasp was loosed on their spears, and they fell as drunken men to the earth. Not a sound, save that of their precipitation; not a struggle; death had come to them as it comes to those whose hearts stop pulsing. Ah! what frightful power hast thou, Suernis!"
"For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed."
Sennacherib was unknown then; the Salda princess knew not of the poem; but we do, my reader, thou and I; that is enough.
While describing the action of the Rai of Suern, the princess had risen to her feet from her place by the side of Menax, simulating at the same time the fatal gesture of Ernon of Suern. So apt had been this mimicry that the group of listeners on our left had involuntarily cowered as her arm swept over their heads. The Saldu noticed them shrink, and her lip curled with scorn.
"Cowards!" she muttered. A Poseida overheard the words, and his cheek flushed, as he said:
"Nay, Astiku, not cowards! Consider our involuntary shrinking as a compliment to thy descriptive powers."
She smiled, and said: "Perhaps so." Then, overcome by her apostrophe to the dread strength of Yeovah as invoked
by Ernon, a strength which even proud Atla feared, she sank back in her seat weeping.
A little wine revived her, and the narration was resumed.
"After the horrible silence that fell on all who had witnessed the awful sight, the women, wives and daughters of the higher officers, began shrieking in affright. Many of our men, as soon as they could realize that the stories they had heard and discredited were no idle tales, fell to the earth in an agony of pulling terror. Ah! then, then could ye have heard supplications to all the gods, great and small, in whom our people place trust. Ha! ha!" laughed the princess, bitterly, contemptuously, "appealing to gods of wood and metal for protection against such awful power! Faugh! Since I may not live in Suern, being banished, I would not live again in the land of my nativity! I want no more of people who idolize insentient objects and defy them. No, Astika," she said in answer to a question from Menax, "I never worshipped idols; most of our people do, but not all. I have not proved an apostate. But I do worship power. I ought to hate Ernon of Suern; but I do not. Indeed, I would, if permitted, live in his presence and idolize his wondrous strength, which works death to his enemies. Not so permitted, I would rather remain with thy people, who are a goodly race, and, if not equal to the Suerni, are yet better and more powerful than mine own, ah! far more so.
"My father knew better than to imagine this some trick of a wily people, knew now, after this bitter lesson, that the reputation accorded them by travelers was no idle fabrication of wonder-mongers. But he did not cringe before the Rai, he was too proud-spirited for that. While we gazed, stupefied, on the awful scene of death, another and not less frightful, but more ghastly thing happened. We that were alive, all our host except the two thousand stood between our dead and the river west of the city. Rai Ernon bowed his bead and prayed--what dire alarm that action caused our people!--and I heard him say:
'Lord, do this thing for thy servant, I beseech thee!'
"Then, as I gazed on the victims, I saw them arise one by one, and gather up each his spear and shield and helmet. Thereafter, in little irregular squads they marched towards us, towards me, O! My God! and passed on to the river! As they passed I saw that their eyes were half-closed and glazed in death; the movement of their limbs was mechanical; they walked as if hung on wires, and their armor clanked and clanged in a horrid, mocking ring. As, one by one, the squads came to the river, they walked in, deeper and deeper, till the waters closed over their heads, and they were gone forever, gone to feed the crocodiles which already roared and snarled over their prey adown the stream of Gunja. No one to lead, none to carry; each going as if alive, and yet somehow dead, this ghastly procession to the river, a thousand paces distant, so completed the horrible sense of fear that desperate terror possessed the great army, and they fled, leaving behind all things, and soon only a few faithful soldiers were left in sight; these remained with their commander and his officers of staff, ready to share with him the death which they expected would be meted out to all who remained. The women also did not all flee. Then spoke Rai Ernon, saying:
"'Did I not tell thee to depart, ere I punished thee? Wilt thou now go? Behold thine army in flight! Its rout shall not cease, for thousands shall never more see Saldee, because they will perish by the wayside, yet not a few shall reach their homes. But thou shalt never more go home; neither thee nor thy women. But they will not stay in my land nor their own, but in a strange country.'"
"That haughty, but now humbled soldier, my father, bent on one knee before the Rai, and said:
"'Mighty Rai, what wouldst thou with innocent women? Thou saidst my warriors were guilty; I admit it, nor except myself. But these, my women, they have harmed no man. Thy words lead me to believe that justice is thy ruling principle; thine acts do likewise, for when thou mightest have struck us every one, thou didst no more than make example of
a few guilty ones. I implore thee, then, have mercy on my women; perchance. on my officers also.'
"'On thy officers, yes; they are faithful unto thee, though they expect but death as their reward. Bid them depart with what still bides of thine army. They are unused to caring for the needs of the body, wherefore they will of a surety all perish, except I save them. Having power, I will use it mercifully. None shall perish by the wayside; not one shall hunger, neither thirst, nor suffer any sickness, O Yeovah! all the way home, nor lose his way, though none shall have to eat any food all the way. And about them shall wild beasts rave, and though not one have a weapon, no animal shall harm him, for the spirit of Yeovah shall go with them and be their shelter and their safeguard. Yea, more also, shall He do, for he will enter into their souls, so that they that are warriors shall be henceforth His prophets, and shall uplift their people and make of their name one which shall go down unto all ages; a famous race of educated men shall they be, and astrologers, telling of God by his works of heaven. Yet shall a further day come some six thousand years hence when the men of Chaldea shall again try to prevail over my people, and again shall fail, even as now, but thou shalt long have been with thy fathers asleep from a second life, and safe in the Name 1 whereby I work, ere this second attempt. Callest thou innocent, women who voluntarily came in all the insolence of supposed power and invincibility to murder my people? Innocent! they who came to see the rapine of my cities and to revel in the sufferings of my people' Innocent! Nay, not so! Wherefore I shall retain with thee these wives and these maidens. Behold! I have said thou shalt not go hence; neither these women yet awhile, but thou-thou shalt never go again from this land. I will put thee in a prison which has neither bars nor gratings nor any wall; yet thou canst not hope to leave it.'
"'Dost thou mean that we are all to die, Zo Rai?' asked my father in a low, sad voice.
"'Not so; Zo Astika, thinkest. thou I condemn murder, yet
would myself do it needlessly? No. Having said that thou canst not leave Suern, neither is it possible for thee thereafter, though neither bolt nor bar hindereth, nor any man watcheth or keepeth thee.'
"It was piteous to see the partings between those who were to go and those who must stay. But then, such are the fortunes of war, and the weak must obey the strong. I had rejoiced in our fancied strength, nor cared who fell by it. Power, aye, power! I think, after all, that I felt a grim satisfaction in beholding thee, Power, my god, work so swift destruction!"
The princess said these last words musingly, apparently lost to her surroundings as she sat with clenched hands, admiration depicted on her beautiful face and her glorious blue eyes with their far-away look, but oh! so heartless, so cruel, after all. Queenly in figure, commanding in personality, beautiful, wonderfully beautiful, the world now, as then, would call the Princess Lolix; indeed she bore a most startling likeness to thine own fair American women. But these are not like her, really. She, lioness-like, sided ever with the triumph-power. But the real American maiden, sympathetic, true as steel, graceful as a bird, sweet as a rose just blown--like Lolix in these three last traits, but ceasing to parallel her further, for she of to-day clings to her father, her brother, her lover, come sunshine, come storm, success or adversity--faithful unto death. Such have their reward.
There came a day when Lolix: was altered to be all that the fair modem maidens are. But it was not till after years. There are some kinds of roses which, while in tender bud, seem all thorns; but what marvels of beauty are they when they have at length opened their hearts to the sun and the dew!
It appeared that Prince Menax had not heretofore heard Lolix: speak at length, but had for some reason waited this experience until I might listen. Consequently it was a revelation to him to hear one so fair, and even so sweet, reveal so heartless a nature an she exhibited in her speech, which was
quite as much retrospective meditation, on her part, as recital. After some moments, Menax said:
"Astiku, thou hast related that his Majesty of Suern did not by thee and thy companions as thou didst anticipate, reasoning from the national custom of thy people to devote female prisoners of war to lust and ministrations to man's base passions."
"Astika Menax, thou'lt not esteem me disrespectful if I shall henceforth call thee friend? I will confess it to have. been very much of a surprise that Rai Ernon did not so do. I could not have complained, for such are the vicissitudes of war. Instead, however, he declared that neither he nor the Suerni had any use for us; wherefore he sent us into a foreign land. Is that our destiny here-such a hard fate?"
"No! never so!" replied Menax, his lip curling with disgust at the bare imputation. "Here thou shalt be supported by the government until perchance Poseid citizens shall choose wives of thy number; ours is a people of strange tastes, sometimes!"
"Thou art sarcastic, Astika!"
Save that the prince slightly raised his eyebrows, he vouchsafed no reply to her remark; even this notice was so faint that if I had not been closely watching his face, I should not have perceived it. After a more or less extended silence, Menax said that they were hindered from evermore returning home to Salda, because--
"No longer my home!" quickly interrupted the lady.
"Then the land of thy birth!" said Menax with some asperity, as he again lapsed into silence.
Lolix then arose and, clasping her hands, vehemently exclaimed:
"I have no wish evermore to see my native land. Henceforth I choose my lot in Poseid--to call it home!"
"As thou wilt," said Menax. "Thou art certainly a most strange woman. For love of power thou forsakest gods and home and native land. Are the others, thy captive friends--nay, hold! perchance not friends, seeing that they are fallen
under misfortune!--are these as thyself, these women, forgetful of their country?"
Bending her lovely head, the princess fixed the gaze of her glorious blue eyes upon the upturned face of her critic. Two drops, tear-drops, fell from beneath the long sweeping lashes, her lips quivered, and she clasped her little hands together with the words:
"Ah! Astika, thou art cruel," then turned away and walked sobbing to the seat where first I had seen her.
Thus was the unblown rosebud mistaken for a thistle blossom.
As for me, a strange mixture of feelings possessed me, a commingling of wonder and approval. I wondered what sort of a nature it was that could be so heartless and thirst so greatly after power as to leave every natural tie for the sake of following it, and yet was so essentially feminine as to be pained at the expression of a very natural reprobation of such conduct. I pitied her because she was so ingenuous, and was so sincerely honest in and through all her soullessness, and had so artlessly narrated her later history, evidently expectant of approbation, and felt so hurt at the contrary effect produced. Finally, approval divided my emotions, because the prince had given a really merited rebuke, and one which, though its smart was keen, could not fail of a salutary effect. My reflections were interrupted at this point by Menax, saying:
"Zailm, let us go into the Xanatithlon 1 where all is quiet and beautiful among the flowers. We shall be alone there, thou and I. I would dismiss these people of my palace, but prefer not to disturb yon Saldee maiden.
118:1 Yeovah or Jehovah.--Ed.
121:1 Building for flowers.