Belshazzar - H. Rider Haggard - ebook

Belshazzar ebook

H. Rider Haggard



Belshazzar is the latest novel by Henry Rider Haggard. He wrote it shortly before his death. All events revolve around Ramose, a descendant of the Egyptian pharaoh and the Greek. He decides to radically change his life and go on adventures. As a result, this decision leads to the fall of Babylon at the hand of the Persian Empire under Cyrus.

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Chapter 1. Ramose And His Mother

Chapter 2. The Cup Of Hathor

Chapter 3. The Counsel Of Belus

Chapter 4. The Fall Of Ramose

Chapter 5. The Flight To Amasis

Chapter 6. The Gift Of God

Chapter 7. Ramose Seeks Refuge In Cyprus

Chapter 8. At Memphis

Chapter 9. Pharaoh Comes To Memphis

Chapter 10. The Happy House

Chapter 11. The Burial Of Apis

Chapter 12. Gone!

Chapter 13. Babylon

Chapter 14. The Prophet And The Prince

Chapter 15. Ramose Finds Friends

Chapter 16. Ramose Is Tempted

Chapter 17. At The Western Gate

Chapter 18. The Letter

Chapter 19. The Lady Of The Litter

Chapter 20. The End Of Obil

Chapter 21. The Writing On The Wall


A. Cowan Guthrie, Esq., M.B.

Dear Cowan Guthrie, You, a student of that age, persuaded me to write this tale of Belshazzar and Babylon. Therefore I offer it to you. Sincerely yours, H. Rider Haggard.



Now when by the favour of the most high God, Him whom I worship, to whom every man is gathered at last, now, I say, when I am old, many have urged upon me that I, Ramose, should set down certain of those things that I have seen in the days of my life, and particularly the tale of the fall of Babylon, the mighty city, before Cyrus the Persian, which chanced when he whom the Greeks called Nabonidus being newly dead, Belshazzar his son was king.

Therefore, having ever been a lover of letters, this I do in the Grecian tongue here in my house at Memphis, the great city of the Nile, whereof to-day I am the governor under Darius the Persian, for it has pleased God after many adversities to bring me to this peace and dignity at last. Whether any will read this book when it is written, or whether it will perish with me, I do not know, nor indeed does it trouble me much, since none can tell the end of anything good or ill, and all must happen as it is decreed. Man makes a beginning, but the rest is in the hands of fate; indeed his life itself is but a beginning of which the end is hid.

Now to-day when he is almost forgotten, I can say without fear that I am a king’s son, for my father was none other than the Pharaoh Uah-ab-Ra, whom the Greeks called Apries and the Hebrews Hophra. Nor is my blood all royal, seeing that I was not the son of the wife of Pharaoh, but of one of his women, a Grecian lady named Chloe, the daughter of Chion, an Athenian by birth, of whom the less said the better for my mother told me that being a spendthrift and in want of money, he turned her beauty to account by giving her to Apries in exchange for a great present. I know no more of the matter because she would seldom speak of it, saying that it was shameful, adding only that her father was well-born; that her mother had died when she was an infant, and that before she came to the court at Sais, they saw many changes of fortune, living sometimes in wealth, but for the most part humbly and in great poverty which in after years bred in her a love of rank and riches.

Here in the palace of Sais during the little time that my mother was in favour with Pharaoh, I was born, and here I lived till I was a young man grown, being brought up with the sons of the great nobles and taught all things that one of my station should know, especially the art of war and how to ride and handle weapons. Further I got learning because always from the first I loved it, being taught many things by Greek masters who were about the court, as well as by Egyptians; also by a certain Babylonian named Belus, a doctor who was versed in strange lore concerning the stars. Of this Belus, my master and friend but for whom I should long ago be dead, I shall have much to tell.

Thus it came about that in the end I could read and speak Greek as well as I could Egyptian, which was not to be wondered at, seeing that I learned it at my mother’s breast. Also I mastered the Babylonian or Chaldean tongue, though not so well, and with it the curious writing of that people.

Of my father, the Pharaoh, I saw little for he had so many children such as I, born of different mothers, that he took small heed of us, he upon whom lay this hard fortune, that from those who were his queens according to the law of Egypt, he had no offspring save one daughter only, while from those who were not his queens he had many. This was a heavy grief to the Pharaoh my father, who saw in it the hands of the gods to whom he made great sacrifices, especially to Ptah-Khepera the Creator and Father of Life, building up his temple at Memphis, and praying of him a son of the pure blood. But no son came and an oracle told him that he who loved the Greeks so much must to the Greeks for offspring, which was true, for all his sons were born of Grecian women, as perhaps the oracle knew already.

On a certain day I and other lads of my age were running races after the Grecian fashion. In the long race I outran all the rest, and fell panting and exhausted into the arms of one who, followed by three companions, stood wrapped in a dark cloak, (for the time was winter,) just by a wand that we had set in the ground to serve us as a winning-post.

“Well run and well won!” said a voice which I knew for that of Apries. “How are you named and who begot you?”

Now I rose from the ground upon which I had sunk, and pretending that he was a stranger to me, gasped out,

“Ramose is my name, and as for that of my begetter, go ask his of Pharaoh.”

“I thought it,” muttered Apries, considering me. Then he turned to the first of his councillors and said,

“You know of what we were talking just now; this lad is straight and strong and has a noble air; moreover I have a good report of him from his instructors who say that he loves learning. Why should he not fill a throne as well as another? The double crown would look well upon his brow.”

“Because his skin is too white, Pharaoh,” answered that councillor. “If the Egyptians learned that you purposed to set a Greek to rule them after you, they would cut his throat and perhaps tumble you into the Nile.”

I remember these words very well, because although spoken at hazard, they must have been inspired, for they were in fact a prophecy, seeing that in the after years Apries was tumbled into the Nile whence Amasis who had usurped his throne, rescued his body and gave it royal burial.

After this Pharaoh spoke to me for a while, but not until he had bidden one of his councillors to lift the cloak from his shoulders and throw it round me, lest I, who was hot with the racing, should take cold. So there I stood, wrapped in the royal cloak of Tyrian purple, while those King’s Companions muttered together, thinking that this was an omen and that one day I should sit upon the throne. Yet it was none, for it was not fated that any of the blood of Uah-ab-Ra, or Apries, should reign after him. That cloak I have to this day, though I do not wear it because of its royal clasp, for Pharaoh does not take back his gifts, or even that which he has lent for an hour. Yes, I have the cloak but not the crown, though this in truth I never sought.

Well, he searched me with his shrewd eyes that at times could look so fierce, and asked me questions as to my studies; also what I wished to be, a priest or a scribe or a soldier.

“What Pharaoh pleases,” I answered, “though if I had my will, I would be all three, a priest because he draws nigh to the gods; a scribe because he gathers learning which is strength, and a soldier because he defends his country and wins glory. Yet most of all I would be a soldier.”

“Well spoken,” said Pharaoh, like one who was astonished at my answer. “You shall have your way if I can give it to you.”

Then he held out his hand to me to kiss and left me, muttering,

“Would that his mother had been Egyptian and not Greek.”

Here I must tell that before this time my mother, Chloe, who long ago had been succeeded by others in Pharaoh’s favour, no longer dwelt at the court in Sais. For Apries, wishing to do well by her, had given her in marriage to a wealthy Egyptian named Tapert, who was one of his officers at Memphis where he filled the place of a judge and overseer of revenues. This Tapert, a kindly- faced, grizzled little man, had fallen in love with my mother’s beauty while he was at court making report to Pharaoh on matters at Memphis, and especially as to the rebuilding of the temple of Ptah in that city, with which he had to do. Noting this, as he noted all, when the time came for Tapert to return to Memphis, Apries asked him if he desired any gift of Pharaoh whom he had served well. Tapert made no answer but let his eyes rest upon my mother who, with other women of the royal household, sat at a distance broidering linen with Grecian patterns, as she loved to do.

Apries thought a while, then said,

“Take her, if she will go. For you are a good man, if ugly, and as your wife she may be happier than here–as nothing. Ask her. You have my leave.”

So he asked as it was made easy for him to do, and in the end, although she loved the pomp and pleasures of the court, my mother listened to him, knowing him for a very rich and honest man of good blood and station, one, too, whom she could rule. So it came about that while she was still a young and beautiful woman, for the Greeks do not wither as early as do the Egyptians, by the permission of Pharaoh my mother was married according to the full custom to the Count Tapert, a man of many offices and titles who settled wealth upon her should he die. Thus it happened that she went to live with him at Memphis, while I stayed behind at Sais.

Our parting was sad, although after my childhood we had met but little, because the laws of the court kept us apart.

“Hearken, my son,” she said to me. “I make this marriage for a double reason. When I was but a child I was delivered into the hands of Pharaoh, who soon forgot me in favour of others who came after, but because I had borne him a son, treated me honourably. Now while I am still fair I have opportunity to leave this cage with golden bars, and to become a free woman as the wife of a rich and honest man who loves me, one by whom I shall be cherished, and I take it thankfully who, if I stayed here, might one day find myself thrown into the street. Yet not altogether for my own sake, because it means that we must be parted; also, if I am loved, I do not love. Know, my son, that what I do, I do for you more even than for myself. Here in the palace you are highly placed; the Pharaoh looks upon you with favour; there are some who think that in the end he will make a prince of you and, having no lawful heirs of the royal blood, name you to follow after him. It may be that this is in his mind. But if so I am sure that it could never come about while your mother, the Grecian slave, remained at court to remind the great ones of Egypt that you are base- born of a woman whose people the Egyptians hate, whereas if I go away this may be forgotten, though I fear that your skin will always tell its own story.

“Nor is this all. As Tapert has whispered to me, Pharaoh is rich; Pharaoh is powerful and under him the people have prosperity, the arts flourish and their gods are better served than they have been for many an age, all of which comes about because Egypt is guarded by the Greeks whom Pharaoh hires. Yet he says that they hate those guardians, they who will not protect themselves, and it may well happen that from this hatred trouble will come, bringing with it the fall of Pharaoh and of those of his House. Therefore, should that chance, I would make ready a refuge for you, my son.

“Tapert is very rich, as he has told me, one of the richest men in Egypt, although few know it, and henceforth all he has is mine, and what is mine is yours, for I do not think that I shall ever bear him children. Therefore, in the hour of trouble remember always that there is a place where you can lay your head, my son of the royal blood of Egypt, whose throne you still may win by help of the wealth that I can give you, and thereby make me, a Grecian slave bought for her beauty, the mother of a king.”

Thus she spoke and as she did so I read her heart, who although I was so young had knowledge of the court ladies and their ways. She went because she thought it no longer safe to stay near to Pharaoh who was weary of the sight of her and of her importunities for gifts and honours, and might at any time cast her out. Still I was sad, for I who had no one else to love, loved my mother however vain and foolish she might be.

So she departed and became the wife of Tapert, Pharaoh making many gifts to her. But I stayed on at court and grew in strength and stature, also in favour with Pharaoh. Hence it came about that I was advanced beyond my station and made a Count of Egypt and a Companion of the King with other offices and titles, seeing which all men bowed down to me, thinking that in days to come, although I was base-born and half a Greek, I still might sit where Pharaoh sat. And so it might have chanced had it not been decreed otherwise and had not Hathor, whom the Greeks call Aphrodite, lit a flame of love within my heart that burned me up and wellnigh brought me to my death.

It happened thus. The King of Babylon had attacked certain peoples in Syria of whom the chief king was named Abibal, an old man. Now in the fighting the Babylonians were driven back, or rather had retired purposing to return at their own season with a larger army–it might be next year, or the year after, or the year after that, as it suited them, to burn the cities of Abibal and his allies and to slay their peoples or take them captive.

Now in this fighting the old king Abibal was wounded with an arrow in the thigh, which wound festered so that in the end he died. Before he died he determined to seek the aid of Apries, the Pharaoh of Egypt, against the Babylonians. Therefore since he trusted no one else, he left command that a young wife of his named Atyra, whom he had married in his age, the daughter of another Syrian king, should go in person to the court of Egypt and lay the cause of her country before Pharaoh, so that he might send an army to defend it from the Babylonians. For this old king cared nothing of what might happen to his young wife after he was dead, or who should take her, but for his people, and the other peoples who were his allies, he cared much.

So he bound the Queen Atyra by a solemn oath to do his bidding, calling down the curse of his spirit and that of his gods upon her if she failed therein, and she who was youthful and desired to see new lands, and above all Egypt, swore all that he wished readily enough, after which he died and was buried. When he had been sealed up in his tomb Queen Atyra, a woman of great beauty who had been brought up in statecraft, with a voice so sweet and a mind so subtle that she could win any man to her will, started upon her journey in much pomp and bearing many gifts, leaving her dead lord’s successor seated upon his throne.

At length having passed all dangers and escaped from a troop of the Babylonians that was sent out to capture her, she came safely to Egypt and encamping at a little distance from Sais, despatched messengers to Pharaoh to announce her and ask his safeguard for herself and her companions. As it chanced I, Ramose, now a young man in my twentieth year, was the captain of the guard that day; therefore it fell to me to receive these messengers and bring them before Pharaoh and his officers.

He listened to their tale of which already he knew something from his spies and those who served him in Syria. Then, having consulted with his councillors and scribes, he beckoned to me and when I came and bowed before him, said,

“Ramose, take an escort with you and ride out to the camp of this lady Atyra, and say to her that it is too late for me to answer her prayer to-day when the sun is already near to setting, but that I will consider of it to- morrow. Talk with her yourself, if you can, for she will suspect no guile in one so young, but at least spend the night at her camp learning all that you are able concerning her and her business, and to-morrow at the dawn return to make report to me.”

So I went clad in the Grecian armour that Apries had commanded the guard to wear, thereby giving much offence to the Egyptian generals and soldiers, taking my newest cloak and mounted on a fine horse of the Arab breed. Indeed, having heard through the messengers that this lady was young and beautiful, I desired to look my best, for to tell the truth, like many youths of my age I was somewhat vain and wished to please the eyes of women. Moreover this was not altogether strange, seeing that all thought me comely, who was tall and well- shaped, having clear-cut Grecian features that I inherited from my mother, brown hair that curled upon my head and large dark eyes, the gift of my Egyptian blood. Further, I was ready of speech and could talk of anything, though in truth as yet I knew little, all of which I do not shame to write now when I am old. Lastly I must add this, though it is not to my credit; that I was too fond of women and made love to them when the chance came my way, which was often at the court of Sais. Or perhaps they made love to me –I do not know; at least none of them had really touched my heart, or I theirs.

Thus, full of youth and goodliness and the lust of life and all the gifts that the gods give us when we are young, of which we think so little until we have grown old and they are gone, followed by my escort I galloped forth proud of my mission and hoping for adventure. For little did I know that I rode into the arms of terror and of sorrow.



An hour later, guided by the messengers, one of whom had gone on ahead to warn this lady Atyra of my coming, I caught sight of her camp set upon the sand at the edge of the cultivated land, and noted that it was large. The tents were many, dark in colour, most of them, for they were woven of camel hair after the Arab fashion, but in their midst was a great white pavilion dyed with stripes of blue and red, over which fluttered a strange, three-pointed flag which seemed to be blazoned with stars of gold.

This banner, I guessed, must mark the resting-place of the lady Atyra who called herself a queen. What sort of a queen was she, I wondered. Thick-made and black probably, though these Syrians whom in my ignorance I believed to be swarthy folk, thought her fair, as indeed all queens are fair according to those who serve them.

Whilst I was musing thus we came to the camp and must pass between two lines of camels, many of which were lying down chewing their food. Now like most horses, mine, a spirited beast, hated the sight and smell of camels and growing restive, took the bit between its teeth in such fashion that I could not hold it. Rushing forward it headed straight for the great pavilion with the coloured stripes. Soldiers or servants sprang forward to stay the beast, but without avail, for it overthrew one of them, causing the rest to fly. On we went, till at the very door of the tent my horse caught its feet in a rope and fell, hurling me straight through the open entrance. Over and over I rolled and though my bones were unharmed, for the sand was covered with thick carpets, the breath was shaken out of me, so that for a while I sat gasping with my helmet all awry like to that of a drunken soldier.

The sound of laughter reached me, very gentle laughter that reminded me of water rippling over stones. Also there was other coarser laughter such as might come from the throats of slaves or eunuchs or of serving-girls. It made me very angry, so much so that being half-stunned, with what breath I had left I said words I should not have uttered, adding that I was Pharaoh’s envoy.

“And if so, Sir, is this the fashion in which Pharaoh’s envoys enter the presence of those whom it pleases Pharaoh to honour?” asked a silvery voice, speaking in the Grecian tongue though with a soft and foreign accent.

“Yes,” I answered, “if they set stinking camels to frighten their horses and lay ropes to snare their feet.”

Then the blood went to my head and I suppose that I fainted for a while.

When my sense returned I found myself stretched upon a couch and heard that same voice giving orders both in Greek and in the Babylonian or Chaldean tongue of which I knew something through the teaching of my tutor, Belus, also in others that I did not know, all of which talk concerned myself.

“Take that helm from his head,” said the soft voice, though not softly. “O daughter of a fool, can you not see that you are pressing the edge of it upon the bruise? Away with you! Let me do it. So. Now remove the breastplate –that is easy for the straps have burst–and open the tunic to give him air. What a white skin he has for an Egyptian. Any woman would be proud of it. By the gods he is a noble-looking youth and if he dies, as he may for I think his neck is twisted, those who tied the camels there and left the ropes lying shall pay for it. Now, wine. Where is the wine? Lift him gently and pour some down his throat. Nay, not so. Would you drown the man? Hand me the cup. Has that old leech been found? If not, bid him get himself back to Syria as best he may–”

Just then I opened my eyes to the lids of which leaden weights seemed to have been tied. They met the glance of other eyes above me, very beautiful eyes that were neither blue nor black, but something between the two. Also I became aware that a white arm was supporting my head and that the fair and rounded breast of a very beautiful woman who was kneeling beside me, touched my own.

“I am the envoy of the Pharaoh Apries, King of the two Lands and of the countries beyond the sea. The Pharaoh says–” I began in feeble tones, repeating the lesson that I had learned.

“Never mind what the Pharaoh says,” answered she who leant over me in a rich, low voice. “Like most of his messages of which I have had many, I doubt not that it will serve as well to-morrow as to-day. Drink this wine and lie quiet for a while–that is, if your neck is not broken.”

So I drank and lay still, thankful enough to do so for I had fallen on my head and been much shaken, having clung with my hands to the reins of my horse as I had been taught to do in the military school, instead of stretching them out to protect myself. The wine was good and warmed me; also it seemed to clear my brain, so that soon I was able to look about me and take note.

I saw that the pavilion in which I lay was finer than any that I had ever known, being hung all round with beautiful mats or carpets that shone like silk wherever the light fell upon them. Also there was a table at its end set with vessels of gold and silver, and round it folding stools made of ebony inlaid with ivory and piled with cushions, and a brazier that stood upon a tripod, for the desert air was chill, wherein burnt wood that gave out sweet odours. Moreover there were hanging lamps of silver that presently were lit by a swarthy eunuch, for now night was closing in, which burned with a clear white flame and like the fire gave out scents.

The eunuch, clad in his rich apparel and head-dress of twisted silk, glanced at me out of his oblong eyes and went away, leaving me alone in that perfumed place. Lying thus upon my soft, cushioned bed, a strange mood took hold of me, as it does at times of those whose brains reel under the weight of some heavy blow. I seemed to lose all sense of time and place; I seemed to be floating on a cloud above the earth, looking backwards and forwards. Far away behind me was a wall or mass of blackness out of which I crawled, a tiny, naked child, into the light of day. Then came visions of my infancy, little matters in my life that I had long forgotten, words that my mother had murmured into my baby ears, her caresses when I was sick; the softness of her cheek as she pressed it against my fevered brow, and I know not what besides. And all this while I, the infant in her arms, seemed to be asking this question of her,

“Mother, whence came I and why am I here?”

To which she answered, “I do not know, my child. The gods will tell you –when you are dead.”

The stream of time flowed on. Yes, it was a stream, for I saw it flowing, and on it I floated, clutching day by day at sticks and straws wherewith I built me a house of life, as a bird builds its nest, till at last I saw myself falling from the horse and for a moment all grew dark. Then out of the darkness there appeared shadowy shapes, some beautiful, some terrible, and I knew that these were the spirits of the future showing me their gifts. They passed by and once more before me was a black wall such as that whence I had seemed to come in the beginning, which wall I knew was Death. I searched to find some opening but could discover none. I sank down, outworn and terrified, and lo! as I sank there appeared a glorious gateway, and beyond it a city of many palaces and temples in whose courts walked gods, or men who looked like gods.

My vision passed and I awoke, wondering where that city might be and if within it I should find any habitation.

It was a foolish dream, yet I set it down because I think it told me something of the mystery of birth and death. Or rather it set out these mysteries, revealing nothing, for who knows what lies beyond those black walls that are our Alpha and Omega and between which we spell out the alphabet of Life. Also it was not altogether foolish, for even then I knew that the shapes of terror which seemed to wait upon my path were portents of advancing woe–and trembled...

It must have been the dead of night when I awoke thus out of my swoon, for now there was no sound in the camp, save the tramping of the sentries and the howling of distant dogs or jackals smitten of the moon. In the pavilion the scented lamps burned low or had been shaded, so that the place was filled with a soft gloom, in which shadows seemed to move, caused no doubt by the swinging of the lamps in the draught of the night air. Yet one of these shadows, the most palpable of them all, did not move; indeed it seemed to stand over me like a ghost that waits the passing of one whom it has loved. I grew afraid and stirred, thinking to speak, whereon the shadow turned its head so that the light of the lamp fell upon the beautiful face of a woman.

“Who are you?” I asked in a whisper, for I seemed to fear to speak aloud.

A sweet voice answered,

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