"The goddess has spoken by the mouth of her oracle. She who is the mother of all demands one life out of the many she has given, that the Lady Baaltis, who is her priestess upon earth, may be recovered of her sickness. Say, who will lay down a life for the honour of the goddess, and that her regent in this land may be saved alive?"
Now--for all this scene had been carefully prepared--a woman stepped forward, wearing the robe of a priestess, who bore in her arms a drugged and sleeping child.
"I, father," she cried in a shrill, hard voice, though her lips trembled as she spoke. "Let the goddess take this child, the first-fruit of my body, that our mother the Lady Baaltis may be cured of her sickness, and that I, her daughter, may be blessed by the goddess, and through me, all we who worship her." And she held out the little victim towards him.
The Shadid stretched out his arms to take it, but he never did take it, for at that moment appeared upon the platform the tall and bearded figure of Issachar clad in his white robes.
"Hold!" he cried in a loud, clear voice, "and touch not the innocent child. Spawn of Satan, would you do murder to appease the devils whom you worship? Well shall they repay you, people of Zimboe. Oh! mine eyes are open and I see," he went on, shaking his thin arms above his head in a prophetic frenzy. "I see the sword of the true God, and it flames above this city of idolaters and abominations. I see this place of sacrifice, and I tell you that before the moon is young again it shall run red with the blood of you, idol worshippers, and of you, women of the groves. The heathen is at your gates, ye followers of demons, and my God sends them as He sends the locusts of the north wind to devour you like grass, to sweep you away like the dust of the desert. Cry then upon El and Baaltis, and let El and Baaltis save you if they can. Doom is upon you; Azrael, angel of death, writes his name upon your foreheads, every one of you, giving your city to the owls, your bodies to the jackals, and your souls to Satan----"
Thus far the priests and the spectators had listened to Issachar's denunciations in bewildered amazement not unmixed with fear. Now with a roar of wrath they awoke, and suddenly he was dragged from the platform by a score of hands and struck down with many blows. Indeed, he would then and there have been torn to pieces had not a guard of soldiers, knowing that he was Sakon's guest and in the train of the prince Aziel, snatched him from the maddened multitude, and borne him swiftly to a place of safety without the enclosure.
While the tumult was at its height, a Ph?nician, who had arrived in the temple breathless with haste, might have been seen to pluck Metem by the sleeve.
"What is it?" Metem asked of the man, who was his servant.
"This: the lady Baaltis is dead. I watched as you bade me, and, as she had promised to do, in token of the end, her woman waved a napkin from the casement of that tower where she lies."
"Do any know of this?"
"Then say no word of it," and Metem hurried off in search of Aziel.
Presently he found him seeking for Issachar in company with his guards.
"Have no fear, Prince," Metem said, in answer to his eager questions, "he is safe enough, for the soldiers have borne the fool away. Pardon me that I should speak thus of a holy man, but he has put all our lives in danger."
"I do not pardon you," answered Aziel hotly, "and I honour Issachar for his act and words. Let us begone from this accursed place whither you entrapped me."
Before Metem could reply a voice cried, "Close the doors of the sanctuary, so that none can pass in or go out, and let the sacrifice be offered."
"Listen, Prince," said Metem, "you must stay here till the ceremony is done."
"Then I tell you, Ph?nician," answered Aziel, "that rather than suffer that luckless child to be butchered before my eyes I will cut my way to it with my guards, and rescue it alive."
"To leave yourself dead in place of it," answered Metem sarcastically; "but, see, a woman desires to speak with you," and he pointed to a girl in the robe of a priestess, whose face was hidden with a veil, and who, in the tumult and confusion, had worked her way to Aziel.