THE next night Manasseh and Charidemus presented themselves at Barsiné's house. Both men were extremely anxious. Further delay, they felt, was impossible. Any hour the unhappy lady might find whatever chance she had irretrievably lost. They did not augur well for her decision that she kept them waiting for nearly an hour after their coming had been announced to her; nor from her first words when at last she appeared.
"The Macedonian has not yet come, has he?" she asked.
"Madam," replied Charidemus, "the king arrived this afternoon."
She wrung her hands in silence.
"And to-morrow the governor of the city will present him with the list of the property and persons left here by King Darius. This will be compared with the list already made by Parmenio."
"But my name may not be in it," she eagerly interposed.
"Madam," said Manasseh, "do not flatter yourself with such a hope. The widow of the man who commanded the Great King's forces is far too important a person to be forgotten. You may depend upon it that there is no one in the whole kingdom, except, it may be, the wife and child of Darius himself, whom the king is more bent on getting into his possession than the widow of Memnon the Rhodian."
"It is so, madam," broke in Charidemus; "nay, I know that your name is in Parmenio's list, for Philotas his son showed it me. I entreat you to act without delay. You should have seen the king on his first arrival. To-night it is impossible. But go to-morrow, as early as may be, before he sees the list—and he begins business betimes—that you may still seem to have given yourself up of your own accord."
Barsiné made no answer, but paced up and down the room in uncontrollable agitation. At last she addressed the Macedonian.
"You know him; you do not speak by hearsay, or as courtiers who flatter a king?"
"Madam," replied Charidemus, "I have seen him at times when men show their real selves—at the banquet and in the battle-field."
"And he is merciful and generous? Strong he is and valiant, I know. My Memnon used to say that he had not his match in the world, and he had seen him fight. But he is one, you say, who can have compassion also, who can pity the suppliant?"
"Madam," said the young man, "I believe from my heart that he is."
"Then I will go to him; I will throw myself at his feet; I will implore his compassion for myself and my children."
"There shall be no need for you to do so, lady," said a voice from the other end of the room.
At the same time the tapestry that covered another door was moved apart, and Alexander himself stood before them. He was unarmed, except for a light cuirass of richly gilded steel and a sword. His head was uncovered; his hair, which he wore long after the fashion of the heroic age, fell in golden curls about his neck. His face, with lustrous deep-blue eyes, features chiselled after the purest Greek type, and fair complexion just now flushed with a delicate rose, was of a beauty singularly attractive.
So unexpected, so startling was the sight that Manasseh and his young companion could only stare in mute astonishment. Charidemus, as became his soldierly instincts and habits, was the first to recover his self-possession. He stood at attention, and saluted. Barsiné covered her face with her hands.
Alexander gazed at the scene with a smile, enjoying with a certain satisfaction the astonishment that his appearance had caused. After a brief silence he spoke again. "I thank you, venerable sir," he began, addressing himself to Manasseh, "for the words of truth that you have uttered, and the admirable advice that you have given to the Lady Barsiné. It is true that there is no one in the whole kingdom of Persia whom Alexander is more anxious to secure than the widow of Memnon the Rhodian. Nor could you have given her better advice than that she should surrender herself to me of her own free will. And you, my young friend," he went on, turning to Charidemus, "you I thank most heartily for the praises that you have bestowed on my clemency. The gods grant that I may always be not less worthy of them than I hope I am this day. And now, lady, after that these gentlemen have spoken, as I trust, so truly of me, let me speak for myself. But, first, will you permit me to be seated?"
Barsiné murmured a half-audible assent, and the king took a chair opposite to the couch on which she was reclining, and signed to the Jew and Charidemus that they should seat themselves. They did so, first respectfully withdrawing to the further end of the room.
The king went on: "Lady; you have never heard of me—save, it may be, from Manasseh and Charidemus here—but as of an enemy, though I trust you have heard no evil; let me now speak as a friend. Your husband fought against me; it was not the will of the gods that he should succeed. Therefore they first blinded the eyes of King Darius so that he could not see the wisdom of his counsel; and then they shortened his days. Had he lived I could not have been here to-day. But would it have been well that he should succeed? He was a Greek, but he fought for Persia. Think you that he wished in his heart that the Persian should triumph over Greece, should be lord of Athens and Sparta, of Delphi and Olympia? I do not forget, lady, that you are Persian by birth. Yes, but you are Greek in soul, and you know in your heart that if one of the two must rule it must be the Greek. But, believe me, I do not come to conquer, I come to unite. Persians and Greeks are brothers, and, if the gods grant me my wish, they shall be one nation of free-men with me for their chief. That your king never could have been, nor, I may say, any Greek before me.
"This is my plan and hope; and now, lady, for the part that you can take in completing and fulfilling it. I shall say it in a word. Be my wife."
Barsiné was silent, and her face was still hidden in her hands; but her neck flushed crimson.
"I am abrupt and hasty," said Alexander, "kings must need be so when they court. It were a happier lot for me, if I were one who could win for himself, if it might be, by such means as lovers use, the heart of one so beautiful and so wise. Still I would have you look on me as one who asks rather than commands. What say you, most beautiful of women?"
"O, my lord," stammered Barsiné, "I am not worthy."
"Let that be my care," said Alexander, "I know of none so worthy. It is only you that have the right to question my choice."
To say that Barsiné was overwhelmed by the situation in which she found herself is to say but a small part of the truth. She had been so much occupied with the thought of whether or no she should appeal to Alexander's compassion, that the idea of what might be the result of her appeal had scarcely crossed her mind. If she had been conscious of any definite hope, it was that she might be allowed to hide herself in some retirement, where she might educate her son. And now what a destiny was put at his feet! To be the wife of the conqueror of Asia! For who could doubt that he would be this? She was confused, but it was not the confusion of dismay. She was not a broken-hearted widow whose heart was in her husband's grave; and though she had really loved her Memnon, as indeed he was worthy to be loved, life was not over for her. And what a life seemed to be opening before her! And yet it was so sudden! And the wooing was so imperious!
"My lord," she began, "your commands——"
"Said I not," broke in the king, "that I did not command, that I asked? Now, listen to me. You are free; you shall do what you will. If you wish to depart, depart you shall; and I will do my best to provide safely and well for you and yours. But you must think of others. There is your son. Though I come of the race of Neoptolemus, I am not of his temper; I could not hurl a young Scamandrius from the wall, however many the comrades whom his father had slain. Not so; I will deal with him as it is fit that I should deal with Memnon's son. He shall learn to be like his father in my camp. And your niece Clearista" (Alexander had the faculty of knowing everything), "we must find some more suitable home for her. Perhaps our good friend Manasseh here can think of such. And now, farewell; I shall come again, lady, and ask my answer."
With a deep obeisance to Barsiné he left the room; and Manasseh and Charidemus followed him.