“Hail, Nehushta!” said the high priest quietly.
But, at the sound of his voice, the spell was broken. The Hebrew woman lifted her head proudly, and her black eyes flashed again.
“Greet me not,” she answered, “for the greeting of a liar is like the sting of the serpent that striketh unawares in the dark.”
Zoroaster’s face never changed, only his luminous eyes gazed on hers intently, and she paused again, as though riveted to the spot.
“I lie not, nor have lied to thee ever,” he answered calmly. “Go thou hence, ask her whom thou hatest, whether I have deceived thee. Farewell.”
He turned his gaze from her and passed slowly on, looking down to the ground, his hands folded before him. He left her standing in the way, greatly troubled and not understanding his saying.
Had she not seen with her eyes how he held Atossa in his arms on that evil morning in Shushan? Had she not seen how, when he was sent away, he had written a letter to Atossa and no word to herself? Could these things which she had seen and known, be untrue? The thought was horrible—that her whole life had perhaps been wrecked and ruined by a mistake. And yet there was not any mistake, she repeated to herself. She had seen; one must believe what one sees. She had heard Atossa’s passionate words of love, and had seen Zoroaster’s arms go round her drooping body; one must believe what one sees and hears and knows!
But there was a ringing truth in his voice just now when he said: “I lie not, nor have lied to thee ever.” A lie—no, not spoken, but done; and the lie of an action is greater than the lie of a word. And yet, his voice sounded true just now in the dusk, and there was something in it, something like the ring of a far regret. “Ask her whom thou hatest,” he had said. That was Atossa. There was no other woman whom she hated—no man save him.
She had many times asked herself whether or no she loved the king. She felt something for him that she had not felt for Zoroaster. The passionate enthusiasm of the strong, dark warrior sometimes carried her away and raised her with it; she loved his manliness, his honesty, his unchanging constancy of purpose. And yet Zoroaster had had all these, and more also, though they had shown themselves in a different way. She looked back and remembered how calm he had always been, how utterly superior in his wisdom. He seemed scarcely mortal, until he had one day fallen—and fallen so desperately low in her view, that she loathed the memory of that feigned calmness and wisdom and parity. For it must have been feigned. How else could he have put his arms about Atossa, and taken her head upon his breast, while she sobbed out words of love?