She had hoped to have been able to warn Phraortes how to act; but, partly because the meeting had taken place so soon after his arrival, and partly because she had employed a portion of that brief interval with Zoroaster and in the scene she had suddenly invented and acted, she had been obliged to meet her chief agent without a moment’s preparation, and she knew enough of his cowardly character to fear lest he should betray her and throw himself upon the king’s mercy as a reward for the information he could give. But the crucial moment had passed successfully and there was nothing more to fear. Atossa threw herself upon the couch where the king had sat, and abandoned herself to the delicious contemplation of the pain she must have given in showing herself to Nehushta in Zoroaster’s arms. She was sure that as the princess could not have seen Zoroaster’s face, she must have thought that it was he who was embracing the queen. She must have suffered horribly, if she really loved him!
When Darius left the queen, he gave over the miserable Phraortes to the guards, to be cared for, and bent his steps towards the gardens. It was yet early, but he wished to be alone, and he supposed that Nehushta would come there before noon, as was her wont. Meanwhile, he wished to be free of the court and of the queen. Slowly he entered the marble gate and walked up the long walk of roses, plucking a leaf now and then, and twisting it in his fingers, scenting the fresh blossoms with an almost boyish gladness, and breathing in all the sweet warmth of the summer morning. He had made a mistake, and he was glad to be away, where he could calmly reflect upon the reason of his being deceived.
He wandered on until he came to the marble pavilion, and would have gone on to stray farther into the gardens, but that he caught sight of a woman’s mantle upon the floor as he passed by the open doorway. He went up the few steps and entered.
Nehushta lay upon the marble pavement at her full length, her arms extended above her head. Her face was ghastly pale and her parted lips were white. She looked as one dead. Her white linen tiara had almost fallen from her heavy hair, and the long black locks streamed upon the stone in thick confusion. Her fingers were tightly clenched, and on her face was such an expression of agony, as Darius had never dreamed of, nor seen in those dead in battle.
The king started back in horror as he caught sight of the prostrate figure. He thought she was dead—murdered, perhaps—until, as he gazed, he saw a faint movement of breathing. Then he sprang forward, and kneeled, and raised her head upon his knee, and chafed her temples and her hands. He could reach the little fountain as he knelt, and he gathered some water in his palm and sprinkled it upon her face.
At last she opened her eyes—then closed them wearily again—then opened them once more in quick astonishment, and recognised the king. She would have made an effort to rise, but he checked her, and she let her head sink back upon his knee. Still he chafed her temples with his broad, brown hand, and gazed with anxious tenderness into her eyes, that looked at him for a moment, and then wandered and then looked again.