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might witness and admire her extraordinary beauty. She belonged by birth to one of the princely houses of Persia, from which it was the custom for the Persian monarchs to select their wives. Some think she was only the favorite concubine, dignified with the title of queen, but of sufficient power and rank to give also a banquet to the women of the royal household. But whether a legitimate queen or not, — and there could be but one queen, even if there were a hundred wives,
—she indignantly resented the insult, for it was against all the customs of the East, where women lived in seclusion. The imperial Vashti, whether from pride or decorum or modesty, refused to obey the royal summons. In this disobedience to her lord, who had absolute control over her as well as over the meanest of his subjects, we do not see haughtiness so much as womanly dignity. Her conduct is more to be admired than blamed. It may have been impolitic, too independent for an Oriental court; but it was marked by self-respect, showing the Aryan blood, — a nature like that of the kindred Germanic races, among whom women were seldom degraded.
This disobedience excited the king to madness. Imagine the blended rage, disappointment, mortification, resentment, which filled the soul of him who reigned supreme over half the East! Imagine the amazement of the courtiers, who saw in this conduct a bold assertion of women's rights, a dangerous example to all their own wives, a defiance not merely of royal but of marital authority, — that absolute authority which husbands in ancient times had over their wives and children and household. Though weak, enervated, and probably enslaved by Vashti's charms, the angry king was obliged to assert his dignity, especially before the princes and nobles of his empire. They goaded him on to summary measures. “For,” said they, “this deed of the queen will come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands. If it please the king, let there go forth a royal commandment, and let it be written in the laws of the Medes and Persians that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before the king; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she.” So the high-spirited princess was disgraced, and retired within the dull recesses of the harem, never more to see the husband who had doted on her. She was disgraced and neglected, but not wholly discarded. Though we hear no more of the haughty but dignified and independent queen, she probably still lived in the palace and in the seclusion of its beautiful gardens.
The disgrace of Vashti, however, was not a light matter with her husband. After his wrath was appeased, his affections returned, when his remorse was equalled only by his bitter regrets. The wife, though disobedient, had not forfeited her husband's respect, on which all love is based. We infer that the king was sad and troubled. “He remembered Vashti, and what was decreed against her.” But absolute as he was, he could not recall her; it was one of the paradoxes of despotism that no Persian law could be repealed. The counsellors who instigated the punishment were in their turn alarmed; they must find somebody, if possible, to fill Vashti's place. The harem was full of women, but no one of them could remove the grief of the king. Of all the princesses of his empire, he knew no one and loved no one enough to inake her his queen.
So the counsellors suggested that all the provinces of the empire should be ransacked for beautiful women, and that the one who best pleased the king should take Vashti's place. The proposal was accepted, and as time would be required, the disconsolate monarch buried his domestic grief for a time in the excitements of his famous war. It is not difficult to conceive that the responsibility of leading from two to five millions of soldiers to Greece would preoccupy his mind.
We are told by Greek historians that when Xerxes returned to his own country after his unexpected and disgraceful failure, humiliated and discouraged, he plunged into every variety of excess and dissipation, giving himself up to the intrigues of the palace, the flattery of favorites, and the rule of women. When he got back to Susa the arrangements of his counsellors had been completed, and the fairest women of his dominion were collected for his concubines, from whom was to be selected the successor of Vashti.
It was then that Esther appeared upon the stage of history, — a Jewish maiden, whose great-grandfather had been among the captives of Nebuchadnezzar. She was an orphan, and had been received into the house of her cousin Mordecai as his daughter. Mordecai was an astute and accomplished Jew; probably a man of more than ordinary position, since he “sat at the king's gate,” — a statement from which we infer that he held some office at court, for state officers were required to wait in the outer courts of the palace until summoned into the presence-chamber. Whether he had a hand in securing the introduction of his cousin to the notice of the grand chamberlain who had the superintendence of the harem, we do not know; but Esther became a candidate for the royal favor. She speedily won the favor of the grand chamberlain, who bestowed on her many acts of kindness, and who when her turn came, twelve months afterward, to appear before the king, introduced her to the royal presence. Admitted at length to the royal apartments, Esther pleased the king more than any of the maidens who had preceded her, so that he placed the royal crown upon her head, and she became queen, adorned with the white and purple ribbon, — the emblem of royalty,— and honored by a magnificent banquet and a dowry equal to the revenues of a province.
The Bible does not mention those arts and graces by which Esther became the most fortunate woman in the world further than this, that she obeyed the directions of the chamberlain as to dress and adornment; and it is equally vain to speculate on the peculiarities of her beauty, except that it must have been different from that of the Persian women, who had blue eyes, light hair, and florid complexion. As she was of the children of Shem, her beauty was probably more dazzling, and her countenance inore striking and expressive from superior education. No women of antiquity were more distinguished for graceful amenities, delicacy, and modesty than the Hebrew, owing in part to the Mosaic legislation, which had in view the elevation of women from that degradation which marked other Oriental women, and even the women of the IndoGermanic races, as in Greece and Rome. Where do we read of such coy maidens, such hospitable matrons, such obedient daughters, such faithful wives, such devoted friends, such inspired prophetesses, such angels of consolation, as are celebrated by the sacred writers ? They pre-eminently, of all the women of antiquity, inspired respect.