Two Persian Schoolboys by Mary J. Safford

"Wake, Otanes, wake, the Magi are singing the morning hymn to Mithras. Quick, or we shall be late at the exercises, and father promised, if we did well, we should go to the chase with him to-day."

"And perhaps shoot a lion. What a feather in our caps that would be! Is it pleasant?"

Smerdis pulled open the shutters that closed the windows, and the first rays of the sun sparkled on the trees and fountains of a beautiful garden beyond whose lofty walls appeared the dwellings and towers of a mighty city. Already the low roar of its traffic reached them while hurrying on their clothes to join their companions in the spacious grounds where they were trained in wrestling, throwing blocks of wood at each other to acquire agility in dodging the missiles, the skilful use of the bow, and various other exercises for the development of bodily strength and grace.

A few minutes later the two brothers, Smerdis and Otanes, with scores of other lads, ranging in age from seven to fourteen years, were assembled in a vast playground, surrounded on all sides by a lofty wall.

The playground of a large boarding-school?

It almost might be called so, but the pupils of this boarding-school were educated free of expense to their parents, and it received only the sons of the highest nobles in the land. This playground was attached to the palace of Darius, King of Persia, who reigned twenty-four hundred years ago, and these chosen boys had been taken from their homes, as they reached the age of six years, to be reared "at his gate," as the language of the country expressed it.

Otanes and Smerdis were sons of one of the highest officers of the court, the "ear of the king," or, as he would now be called, the Minister of Police. Handsome little fellows of eleven and twelve, with blue eyes, fair complexions, and curling yellow locks, their long training in all sorts of physical exercises had made them stronger and hardier than most lads of their age in our time. Though reared in a palace, at one of the most splendid courts the world has ever seen, the boys were expected to endure the hardships of the poorest laborer's children. Instead of the gold and silver bedsteads used by the nobles, they were obliged to sleep on the floor; if the court was at Babylon, they were forced to make long marches under the burning sun of Asia, and if, to escape the intense heat, the king removed to his summer palaces at Ecbatana and Pasargadę, situated in the mountainous regions of Persia, where it was often bitterly cold, the boys were ordered to bathe in the icy water of the rivers flowing from the heights. In place of the dainty dishes and sweetmeats for which Persian cooks were famous, they were allowed nothing but bread, water, and a little meat; sometimes to accustom them to hardships they were deprived entirely of food for a day or even longer.

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THE BOYS HURRIED OFF TOWARD HOME.

On this morning the exercises seemed specially long to the two brothers, full of anticipations of pleasure; but finally the last block of wood was hurled, the last arrow shot, the last wrestling match ended, and the boys, bearing a sealed roll of papyrus, containing a leave of absence for one day, hurried off towards home.

Their father's palace stood at no great distance from the royal residence, on the long, wide street extending straight to the city gates, and like the houses of all the Persian nobles, was surrounded by a beautiful walled garden called a paradise, laid out with flower-beds of roses, poppies, oleanders, ornamental plants, adorned with fountains, and shaded by lofty trees.

The hunting party was nearly ready to start, and the courtyard was thronged. Servants rushed to and fro bearing shields, swords, lances, bows and lassos, for a hunter was always equipped with bow and arrows, two lances, a sword and a shield. Others held in leash the dogs to be used in starting the game.

The enormous preserves in the neighborhood of Babylon were well stocked with animals, including stags, wild boars, and a few lions. Several noblemen clad in the plain hunting costume always worn in the chase, were already mounted, among them the father of the two lads, who greeted them affectionately as they respectfully approached and kissed his hand.

"Make haste, boys, your horses are ready. Take only bows and shields—the swords and lances will be in your way; you must not try to deal with larger game than you can manage with your arrows."

"May we not carry daggers in our belts, too, father?" cried Otanes eagerly. "They can't be in our way, and if we should meet a lion—"

A laugh from the group of nobles interrupted him. "Your son seeks large game, Intaphernes!" exclaimed a handsome officer. "He must have better weapons than a bow and dagger, if—"

The rest of the sentence was drowned by the noise in the courtyard, but as the party rode towards the gate Intaphernes looked back: "Yes, take the daggers, it can do no harm. Keep with Candaules."

The old slave, a gray-haired, but muscular man, with several other attendants, joined the lads, and the long train passed out into the street and toward the city gates. Otanes hastily whispered to his brother: "Keep close by me, Smerdis; if only we catch sight of a lion, we'll show what we can do with bows and arrows."

The sun was now several hours high, and the streets, lined with tall brick houses, were crowded with people—artisans, slaves, soldiers, nobles and citizens, the latter clad in white linen shirts, gay woollen tunics and short cloaks. Two-wheeled wooden vehicles, drawn by horses decked with bells and tassels, litters containing veiled women borne by slaves, and now and then, the superb gilded carriage, hung with silk curtains, of some royal princess passed along. Here and there a heavily laden camel moved slowly by, and the next instant a soldier of the king's bodyguard dashed past in his superb uniform—a gold cuirass, purple surcoat, and high Persian cap, the gold scabbard of his sword and the gold apple on his lance-tip flashing in the sun.

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THE HUNTING PARTY WERE NEARLY READY TO START.

High above the topmost roofs of even the lofty towers on the walls rose the great sanctuary of the Magi,1 the immense Temple of Bel, visible in all quarters of the city, and seen for miles from every part of the flat plain on which Babylon stood. The huge staircase wound like a serpent round and round the outside of the building to the highest story, which contained the sanctuary itself and also the observatory whence the priests studied the stars.

Otanes and Smerdis, chatting eagerly together, rode on as fast as the crowd would permit, and soon reached one of the gates in the huge walls that defended the city. These walls, seventy-five feet high, and wide enough to allow two chariots to drive abreast, were strengthened by two hundred and fifty towers, except on one side, where deep marshes extended to their base. Beyond these marshes lay the hunting-grounds, and the party, turning to the left, rode for a time over a smooth highway, between broad tracts of land sown with wheat, barley and sesame. Slender palm-trees covered with clusters of golden dates were seen in every direction, and the sunbeams shimmered on the canals and ditches which conducted water from the Euphrates to all parts of the fields.

Otanes' horse suddenly shied violently as a rider, mounted on a fleet steed, and carrying a large pouch, dashed by like the wind.

"One of the Augari bearing letters to the next station!" exclaimed Smerdis. "See how he skims along. Hi! If I were not to be one of the king's bodyguard, I'd try for an Augar's place. How he goes! He's almost out of sight already."

"How far apart are the stations?" asked Otanes.

"Eighteen miles. And when he gets there, he'll just toss the letter bag to the next man, who is sitting on a fresh horse waiting for it, and away he'll go like lightning. That's the way the news is carried to the very end of the empire of our lord the King."

"Must be fine fun," replied Otanes. "But see, there's the gate of the hunting-park. Now for the lion," he added gayly.

"May Ormuzd2 save you from meeting one, my young master," said the old servant, Candaules. "Luckily it's broad daylight, and they are more apt to come from their lairs after dark. Better begin with smaller game and leave the lion and wild boars to your father."

"Not if we catch sight of them," cried Otanes, settling his shield more firmly on his arm, and urging his horse to a quicker pace, for the head of the long train of attendants had already disappeared amid the dark cypress-trees of the hunting park. The immense enclosure stretching from the edge of the morasses that bordered the walls of Babylon far into the country, soon echoed with the shouts of the attendants beating the coverts for game, the baying of the dogs, the hiss of lances and whir of arrows. Bright-hued birds, roused by the tumult, flew wildly hither and thither, now and then the superb plumage of a bird of paradise flashing like a jewel among the dense foliage of cypress and nut-trees.

Hour after hour sped swiftly away; the party had dispersed in different directions, following the course of the game; the sun was sinking low, and the slaves were bringing the slaughtered birds and beasts to the wagons used to convey them home. A magnificent stag was among the spoil, and a fierce wild boar, after a long struggle, had fallen under a thrust from Intaphernes's lance.

The shrill blast of the Median trumpet sounded thrice, to give the first of the three signals for the scattered hunters to meet at the appointed place, near the entrance of the park, and the two young brothers who, attended by Candaules and half a dozen slaves, had ridden far into the shady recesses of the woods, reluctantly turned their horses' heads. No thought of disobeying the summons entered their minds—Persian boys were taught that next to truth and courage, obedience was the highest virtue, and rarely was a command transgressed.

They had had a good day's sport; few arrows remained in their quivers, and the attendants carried bunches of gay plumaged birds and several small animals, among them a pretty little fawn. "Let's go nearer the marshes; there are not so many trees, and we can ride faster," said Otanes as the trumpet-call was repeated, and the little party turned in that direction, moving more swiftly as they passed out upon the strip of open ground between the thicket and the marshes. The sun was just setting. The last crimson rays, shimmering on the pools of water standing here and there in the morasses, cast reflections on the tall reeds and rushes bordering their margins.

Suddenly a pretty spotted fawn darted in front of the group, and crossing the open ground, vanished amid a thick clump of reeds. "What a nice pet the little creature would make for our sister Hadassah!" cried Otanes eagerly. "See! it has hidden among the reeds; we might take it alive. Go with Candaules and the slaves, Smerdis, and form a half-circle beyond the clump. When you're ready, whistle, and I'll ride straight down and drive it towards you; you can easily catch it then. We are so near the entrance of the park now that we shall have plenty of time; the third signal hasn't sounded yet."

Smerdis instantly agreed to the plan. The horses were fastened to some trees, and the men cautiously made a wide circuit, passed the bed of reeds, and concealed themselves, behind the tall rushes beyond. A low whistle gave Otanes the signal to drive out the fawn.

Smerdis and the slaves saw the lad straighten himself in the saddle, and with a shout, dash at full speed towards the spot where the fawn had vanished. He had almost reached it when the stiff stalks shook violently, and a loud roar made them all spring to their feet. They saw the brave boy check his horse and fit an arrow to the string, but as he drew the bow, there was a stronger rustle among the reeds; a tawny object flashed through the air, striking Otanes from his saddle, while the horse free from its rider, dashed, snorting with terror, towards the park entrance.

"A lion! A lion!" shrieked the trembling slaves, but Smerdis, drawing his dagger, ran towards the place where his brother had fallen, passing close by the body of the fawn which lay among the reeds with its head crushed by a blow from the lion's paw. Candaules followed close at the lad's heels.

Parting the thick growth of stalks, they saw, only a few paces off, Otanes, covered with blood, lying motionless on the ground, and beside him the dead body of a half-grown lion, the boy's arrow buried in one eye, while the blood still streamed from the lance-wound in the animal's side.

Smerdis, weeping, threw himself beside his brother, and at the same moment Intaphernes, with several nobles and attendants, attracted by the cries, dashed up to the spot. The father, springing from the saddle, bent, and laid his hand on the boy's heart.

"It is beating still, and strongly too," he exclaimed. "Throw water in his face! perhaps—"

Without finishing the sentence, he carefully examined the motionless form. "Ormuzd be praised! He has no wound; the blood has flowed from the lion. See, Prexaspes, there is a lance-head sticking in its side. I believe it's the very beast you wounded early in the day."

The officer whose laugh had so vexed Otanes, stooped over the dead lion and looked at the broken shaft.

"Ay, it's my weapon; the beast probably made its way to the morass for water; but, by Mithras!3 the lad's arrow killed the brute; the barb passed through the eyeball into the brain."

"Yes, my lord," cried old Candaules eagerly, "and doubtless it was only the weight of the animal, which, striking my young master as it made its spring, hurled him from the saddle and stunned him. See! he is opening his eyes. Otanes, Otanes, you've killed the lion!"

The boy's eyelids fluttered, then slowly rose, his eyes wandered over the group, and at last rested on the dead lion. The old slave's words had evidently reached his ear, for with a faint smile he glanced archly at Prexaspes, and raising himself on one elbow, said:

"You see, my lord—even with a bow and dagger!"

Footnote 1: (return)

The Magi were the Persian priests.

Footnote 2: (return)

The principal god of the Persians.

Footnote 3: (return)

The Persian god of the sun.