The BEGGAR OF UR
A romantic story of the East that was old before Babylon was born
W. G. HARDY
ALMS,” cried Adag the beggar, as he entered the Street of Bazaars; “alms for the love of Nannar.
Alms, and may the grace of Ningal deck thee, lady."
Few of the gaily dressed throng paid any heed to him. One and all, they were intent on the cunning merchandise of Ur spread out before them in the bazaars-golden and bearded lions no bigger than one's thumb, rouge and eye cosmetic, cedar chests breathing odorously of the forests of Lebanon, all that might tempt the eye or the nose of the visitor to Ur.
In that far-off day, more than two thousand years before Christ, Ur of the Sumerians was a busy centre of the lanes of trade. It was already uncounted centuries since first the bird-faced, bald-skulled Sumerians had come into the plain between tlie Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to turn the thirsty soil into a fruitful garden by their myriad canals and to build their great cities Erech and Lagash and Shippurak and Ur. For centuries those cities had flourished, busy hives of commerce and religion; for centuries, too, frizzly-bearded Elamites and Chaldeans from the marshes and the highlands and black-bearded Semites from the desert, had flooded into the Land Between the Two Rivers to mingle and intermarry with the hairless Sumerians and to be civilized by them.
For a space even, under their great war king. Sargon. an I his successors, the Semitic Akkadians had conquered all the land of Sumer. But now, two centuries and more before Abraham was to dwell in Ur. the Sumerians had flung off the Semitic yoke as a wild bull losses a dart from its neck. Once more rich offerings flowed in to the ziggurat of Nannar, the terraced temple of the mighty Mxn Cod of l r. Once n-ore Ur of the Sumerians ruled tin empire that reached from the Bay of the Rising Sun, later to be the Persian Gulf, to the borders of Syria. ...
Little did Adag the beggar know of the storied history of Ur, and he cared less.
• Alms " he whined ceaselessly as he made his way up the crowded street toward the wall that ran round the temple enclosure of Nannar; ' alms for the love of Nannar.
Rich he thought to himself, should lxthe gleanings on this day For was not this the last day of the Festival of the New Year at Ur? Was not this the Night of the Full Mixm. the night when from 'among the fairest virgins of the dancing girls of Ningal. Grxidess of the Mixn. Nannar the Moon Gxl would take to himself a new bride to grace his golden bed? \ time of peace and plenty, a time of merriment and rejoicing And harvest time, tcxi. for the shrewd and prosperous merchant, of I 'r and for the beggars who whined in her streets.
The gleanings of Adag the beggar had as yet been scanty; nevertheless when he had passed from the street and through the gate and into the wide temple enclosure itself, he paused from his begging and kxiked about him. It was a gay, colorful spectacle. His frowning gaze lifted above the milling throng of priests and scribes and merchants to the great ziggurat of Nannar, the ziggurat that he himself had helped to build. There before him, in the northwest corner of the temple enclosure, it towered up into the bright sky of morning. At its feet, sejrarated from each other by a broad and vacant space, crouched the shrines of Nannar and of Ningal, the shrines in which the statues of the deities dwelt and wherein were housed their priests. High above these shrines rose in glittering white the first terrace of the ziggurat, reached by three huge and converging staircases. Above it towered in black and red the second and third steps. Still higher towered the fourth receding terrace, the terrace on which, fashioned in sky-blue enamelled bricks, rested Nannar's sacred marriage chamber, the chamber to which this night must go the chosen bride.
Memories flooded up in Adag, as he stood there, a gaunt and powerful ligure in his dirty rags; memories of his oung manhexxi in the mountains before Ur-Nammu. lirst king of this great dynasty of Ur. had carried him off to be a temple slave and help build the ziggurat of Nannar. That was five and twenty years ago: but. as the crowd thronged round him. he saw for an instant through the blinding brilliance of the ziggurat, the sheepskin tents of his tribe and the morning sun rising above the clean-cut hills; saw. tixi, the face of that sweet girl, his wife. A slave like himself she had been. Yet for a sjiace they had been hajijiy. even as slaves, even in Ur. And then a s|asm of anguish twisted his wrinkled face one day Kur-lil. the |iriest. rich and |xweriul even then, had glim|sed his wife's golden hair.
The beggar's hand clenched on his stave until the knotted veins stixxl out. Small use it had Ix-en to struggle. I he scars on his back were mute witnesses to that. Chains and blows and at last, ten years ago, freedom flung to him as a crust is thrown to a dog.
But what had his freedom availixl him? His wife dead, his daughter taken from him as a child and not knowing who he was And jxrverty. abject poverty. Was it any wonder, he thought dully, that he. once the son of a chief, had become a beggar, a beggar who whined for alms and squandered them on mead? Ills daughter by the law he might not let her know who he was. might not even sjx-ak of her And Kur-lil A grim kxik gleamed in Adag's faded eves There was one way whereby he might snatch reprisal from the pn-st Oft had he visioned it. Yet, the gleam
dulled. If he failed, his daughter would still be in Kur-lil's power. No, mead, that was it. Drown memory. And yet, his daughter
For a moment he was undecided. Rich would be his takings in yonder throng. And mead his eyes brightened could be had on this day of festival for the asking. Still, his daughter and Kur-lil. Was Kur-lil not high priest of Nannar? Did he not, so Adag shrewdly conjectured, decide which of the dancing girls of Ningal the god would choose to be his bride? Let the folk of Ur believe that the gixl himself made the choice and that this night he would couch with his bride in yonder blue-gfazed chamber atop the ziggurat. Adag had seen tcxi much of the priests. In this rlay, when it was a.commonplace to believe that the gods walked with men, Adag, beggar though he was, suspected that it was the priests who made light the work of Nannar. The bride of the gixl would be chosen this night from among the dancing girls of Ningal by Kur-lil.
As one who is under strong compulsion, after a wistful glance at the tavern of Baladan. his friend, the beggar drew his single rag about him and threaded his way through the crowd. On the edge of the ojxn space in front of the ziggurat lie hesitated and kxiked alxiut him furtively. Then, at a half trot, he shuffled across the square to the doorway of the wall about the temple of Ningal. Two tall pillars flanked the entrance and in the shadow beside one of these he crouched, making himself small as one who watches (or someone and docs not wish to be seen.
HE HAD not long to wait. Two girls came out of the tkxirway and paused at the entrance. Their robes of white, hroidcred with a stri|xof blue, showed that they were no temple harlots but maidens and dancing girls of Ningal. Adag shrank close behind his pillar and feasted his eyes on the nearer one Golden was her hair and her form was as lissom as a sapling on the mountains.
"This night, Amytis." the other of the two, a girl with the opulent curves and raven hair of the Semite, said: "this night doth Nannar lake his bride. Art fain to be the chosen one?"
"Not so fain am I, Nubta," Amytis answered, "to be rid of my maidenlxxxt, even to a gixl."
"Some priest. thou wouldst say," Nubta replied, and Adag. in his corner, smiled grimly "Yet," the girl went on mischievously, "were the gixl or priest Ardan?"
Adag caught his breath and leaned forward. Amytis flushed rosy red.
"Ardan!" she exclaimed. “What knowest thou of me and Ardan?"
“Did I not behold thee,’ Nubta laughed, “yester eye under the shadow of the ziggurat? Wert thou not in his arms? Beware lest thy maidenhood—”
"Ardan is not as the priests,” Amytis broke in swiftly. “Not like that bald-skulled Sumerian with whom I have seen thee sport.” Her voice softened. "He would wed with me—me, the daughter of Gula, the temple woman.”
“Wed with thee? Yet is not Kur-lil our master?”
“Is not Kur-lil," Amytis answered, looking down, “the brother of Ardan’s father?”
“Yet hast thou no dower. And was not Ardan’s sire one of the wealthy men of Ur?”
“Even so. Yet was his mother a Semite, a dweller in the desert.”
“But thinkest thou that Kur-lil—”
“This very mom,” Amytis interrupted, "doth Ardan seek me of him. And look, yonder he comes."
She ran forward a step or two in her eagerness. Nubta laughed and went back into the temple. Across the square. Ardan, captain of the temple guard, came striding, resplendent in his quilted mail and golden helm.
From behind his pillar Adag watched him intently. Did this man really love Amytis? Then all might be well. Yet Kur-lil was Ardan’s uncle.
"Hast spoken with him, Ardan?” the girl cried as the soldier came up to her.”
The soldier’s eyes were soft as he looked down at her. "My dove of Ishtar,” he said. “Beautiful one.”
“But hast thou?”
The soldier’s bearded face was thoughtful, and Adag waited eagerly for the reply. The soldier nodded.
“And?” tire girl whispered.
"He would not say. Needs must thou recall that in my childhood I was betrothed to Shulg-ad, his daughter. Yet did he bid us come to yonder ziggurat where he casteth the horoscope for tonight. But I—I will not let thee go.”
She answered him with a smile, and then over her shoulder the soldier caught sight of Adag. A black frown creased his forehead.
"Thou!” he said, striding past the girl. "Wilt thou, a
TT WAS a long climb in the hot sun up the steep steps.
The girl was weary when they reached the summit of the first terrace of the ziggurat. The soldier spoke to her.
"Rest ye awhile, Amytis.”
He helped her to a seat on the parapet. The sheer drop below her, she poised there lightly, her golden hair about her, her close-wrapped tunic revealing the soft and tender outlines of her body. Ardan feasted his eyes upon her; and she, seemingly unconscious of his gaze, looked out over the huddled flat roofs of Ur and across the thread of the Euphrates, which gleamed like a silver ribbon in the sun, to the wide green levels of the plain. To her right stretched the turquoise of the bay, alive with flitting sails. She sighed at the sheer beauty of it, thinking vaguely perhaps of the long centuries the selfsame sun had shone down on the selfsame plain.
. “ ’Tis a fair land,’ she said. "And yet Adag’s mountain
"Adag again ! What knowest thou of him?”
beggar, cast thine eyes upon the dancing girls of Ningal?”
“ Twas hot as the halls of Tiamat in the sun,” Adag whined, as he shrank away from the expected blow. “I did but seek the shade.”
“Strike him not, Ardan,” the girl pleaded, laying a white hand on her lover’s arm. “Oft have I held speech with him.”
“Thou and a beggar? Doth a beggar draw near the dancing girls of Ningal? I will have him whipped.”
“Nay,” said the girl. “He did but tell me tales of the snow-topped mountains far beyond the plain. Strike him not, I pray thee.”
The soldier dropped his hand. “At thy behest.” His voice was fondly fatuous. “Yet, beggar, get thee gone. If ere I come upon thee here
He left the threat uncompleted and turned to the girl. She nestled dose to him. Side by side, the stalwart SemiticSumerian soldier and the dancing girl with hair of gold went toward the ziggurat and began to climb the marble treads. The beggar watched them go. There was a great hunger in his faded eyes as he gazed after the girl; a great hope, too. Yet his step was slow as, leaving the pillar, he moved back to the crowd again.
“Kur-lil,” he muttered to himself; “I fear Kur-lil.”
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"Wait,” he cautioned. “I have a plan.” Ardan turned swiftly. “Thou," he exclaimed as he recognized the beggar. “Thou,
“Aye, and the father of thy sweetheart. Dost truly love her?”
“As my life.” His lips drew back in frenzy. "Nor will I have her tom from me, god or no god.”
“List,” said the beggar. “I have a plan.”
THE procession had gone up the broad staircases from terrace to terrace of the mighty ziggurat. At last, before the blue door of Nannar’s chamber the bearers halted and put down the.chairs.
Amytis looked beneath her despairingly. Far below her in the temple square the people were like black ants darting hither and thither on a silver floor. From a far distance their cries floated up to her. She knew what they were about. The temple women had come out to complete the festival and begin the mad orgy of the reviving year, the orgy to which her mating with the god lent sanction. And there, on every stage of the ziggurat stood the temple soldiers, ready to watch through the night. A sob welled in her throat. Was Ardan among them, Ardan once her lover? Only a few hours ago, so hopeful, so happy
As in a dream, she saw the door of Nannar’s shrine rise upward and felt the fingers of Beya, high priestess of Ningal, on her arm. Descending from the chair, Amytis passed with her into the chamber. There, in the half darkness, the cloying scent of incense about her, she let Beya disrobe her and put on her slim form the bridal robe of Ningal, the blue robe sprinkled with crescent moons that reached only to below her breasts and was girdled with a golden cord. The priestess left her. The door that only Kur-lil could open closed behind her. The girl was left alone, waiting for
She gazed about her with fear-filled eyes. The statue of the god, she knew, was sitting in its chair atop the chamber in which she stood. Yet in the morning that chair would be empty and the god would be sitting on the dais behind yonder curtain, and thence the priests of Nannar, when the sun rose again, would bear him with dancing and rejoicing down to his shrine at the foot of the ziggurat, there to abide until the New Year came again. How did the god come hither? Did he really couch with his bride? Gula, her mother—no, not her mother— Gula had told her how the god had visited her, a vision of splendor and delight. Yet Nubta had hinted that it was a priest. What mattered it? God or priest, she was cut off from Ardan forever. She wanted no god or priest. Only Ardan.
She sank down on the golden bed. There on the golden table was spread the banquet of the god on golden vessels —rich dates from the desert, pomegranates of glossy red, purple eggplant and sparkling wine from the islands of the Great Green Sea of the West. The air was thick and cloying. The room swam before her eyes. Did those curtains by the dais move? She started to her feet. No, it was but fancy. And the door was fast closed. Yet those curtains did move; thev did!
With a smothered cry she shrank back against the wall. The curtains had parted and there in the dim light, regal in his robes, stood the god, the full orb of the moon in his hand. So the god did come. The god had come! She saw him lay aside the orb and step down from the dais. Sinking on her knees, she covered her face with her hands. The bride of the god ! It was all over now. Who could resist a god? She felt a hand on her bared shoulder and heard a voice speak to her. Trembling, she looked up. and then, after one frozen moment of amazement, leaped to her feet.
“Thou,” she exclaimed in violent revul-
sion as she saw her vague fears come true. “Thou!”
Kur-lil smiled at her. “Aye, fair one. Didst think-that dolt, my nephew, would pluck this fruit?”
“But the god—”
“The god?” He laughed. “Thinkest thou a god of stone could play the man?” His eyes surveyed her fair form lingeringly. “ ’Tis I, who, by the grace of Nannar, plays the god.”
With a swift movement the girl covered her breasts with her crossed arms and tried to shrink back farther.
“Nay,” she said breathlessly, “ Tis Ardan
“Be not a fool. Wealth and great riches shall be thine. Never shall a bride of Nannar be so honored." He reached out his hands.
But, with a sharp exclamation, she strove to slip aside. The trailing robe caught at her feet and she stumbled. She felt his arms close round her and she cried out desperately.
“Thou fool,” the priest said savagely, “not to come willingly.”
“Ardan, Ardan!” she called, and beat at Kur-lil.
He laughed grimly and drew her closer. “Ardan,” he mocked, “cannot hear thy call.”
UVEN as he spoke, the girl felt him
wrenched from her by a violent hand, and there was Ardan her lover. With a cry she fell, almost fainting, into his arms.
“Thou here?” she sobbed. “Or am I still a-dream?”
“ Tis I,” he answered fiercely. “ Tis I, thanks to the doves of Ishtar—and to
“Thy father. See.”
Wonderingly she looked. Adag, a keen knife in his hand, gave her a brief and tender smile. Then his gaze went back to the huddled figure of Kur-lil where he lay against the wall, his head gashed by the edge of the golden table.
“ ’Twas he,” Ardan said, “who knew a secret way, a way that he himself had helped to build what time Ur-Nammu didst consecrate this ziggurat to Nannar. ’Twas by that road, that secret road, we came. But now, little dove, cease thy fluttering. Let
"But whither shall we go? No place in Ur could hide us.”
"To the desert. To my mother's kin. Even now my camels are waiting at the gates of Ur.”
“Yet even there Kur-lil—thou knowest his arm is long.”
From the shadow Adag spoke. “Fear not, my daughter,” he said, looking grimly at the unconscious body of the priest. “Ere I leave this room Kur-lil, who stole thy mother from me, shall have gone to greet the black god of evil in the shades below.”
"And then,” the girl asked, "thou wilt flee with us, my father?"
But Adag shook his head. “Nay,” he said. “Here in Ur none will point the finger of suspicion at me, a beggar. But were I to flee with thee, Kur-lil’s kin might set two and two together and track thee down.”
“Yet, my father—”
“Nor will I, a beggar,” he interrupted her, “bring shame on thee in thy new abode. Here in Ur will I stay, here where thy mother lies buried. I will be happy, knowing that thou art happy. But now, haste ye. Flee while the city revels and there is none at the gates to say ye nay. This carrion”—he looked grimly at the crumpled figure of the awrakening priest—"I will see to it."
The girl flung her arms about her father and gave him her first and last embrace. Then Ardan led her, weeping, from the room and from Ur forever.