Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
Based on THE WANDERER’S NECKLACE by H. Rider Haggard
BOOK III: EGYPT
CHAPTER I: TIDINGS FROM EGYPT
That curtain of oblivion without rent or seam sinks again upon the visions of this past of mine. It falls, as it were, on the last of the scenes in the dreadful chamber of the pit, to rise once more far from Constantinople.
I am blind and can see nothing, for the power which enables me to disinter what lies buried beneath the weight and wreck of so many ages tells me no more than those things that once my senses knew. What I did not hear then I do not hear now; what I did not see then I do not see now. Thus it comes about that of Lesbos itself, of the shape of its mountains or the colour of its seas I can tell nothing more than I was told, because my sight never dwelt on them in any life that I can remember.
It was evening. The heat of the sun had passed and the night breeze blew through the wide, cool chamber in which I sat with Martina, whom the soldiers, in their rude fashion, called “Olaf’s Brown Dog.” For brown was her colouring, and she led me from place to place as dogs are trained to lead blind men. Yet against her the roughest of them never said an evil word; not from fear, but because they knew that none could be said.
Martina was talking, she who always loved to talk, if not of one thing, then of another.
“Godson,” she said, “although you are a great grumbler, I tell you that in my judgment you were born under a lucky star, or saint, call it which you will. For instance, when you were walking up and down that Hall of the Pit in the palace at Constantinople, which I always dream of now if I sup too late——”
“And your spirit, or double, or whatever you call it, was kindly leading me round the edge of the death-trap,” I interrupted.
“——and my spirit, or double, making itself useful for once, was doing what you say, well, who would have thought that before so very long you would be the governor, much beloved, of the rich and prosperous island of Lesbos; still the commander, much beloved, of troops, many of them your own countrymen, and, although you are blind, the Imperial general who has dealt the Moslems one of the worst defeats they have suffered for a long while.”
“Jodd and the others did that,” I answered. “I only sat here and made the plans.”
“Jodd!” she exclaimed with contempt. “Jodd has no more head for plans than a doorpost! Although it is true,” she added with a softening of the voice, “that he is a good man to lean on at a pinch, and a very terrible fighter; also one who can keep such brain as God gave him cool in the hour of terror, as Irene knows well enough. Yet it was you, Olaf, not even I, but you, who remembered that the Northmen are seafolk born, and turned all those trading vessels into war-galleys and hid them in the little bays with a few of your people in command of each. It was you who suffered the Moslem fleet to sail unmolested into the Mytilene harbours, pretending and giving notice that the only defence would be by land. Then, after they were at anchor and beginning to disembark, it was you who fell on them at the dawn and sank and slew till none remained save those of their army who were taken prisoners or spared for ransom. Yes, and you commanded our ships in person; and at night who is a better captain than a blind man? Oh! you did well, very well; and you are rich with Irene’s lands, and sit here in comfort and in honour, with the best of health save for your blindness, and I repeat that you were born under a lucky star—or saint.”
“Not altogether so, Martina,” I answered with a sigh.
“Ah!” she replied, “man can never be content. As usual, you are thinking of that Egyptian, I mean of the lady Heliodore, of whom, of course, it is quite right that you should think. Well, it is true that we have heard nothing of her. Still, that does not mean that we may not hear. Perhaps Jodd has learned something from those prisoners. Hark! he comes.”
As she spoke I heard the guards salute without and Jodd’s heavy step at the door of the chamber.
“Greeting, General,” he said presently. “I bring you good news. The messengers to the Sultan Harun have returned with the ransom. Also this Caliph sends a writing signed by himself and his ministers, in which he swears by God and His Prophet that in consideration of our giving up our prisoners, among whom, it seems, are some great men, neither he nor his successors will attempt any new attack upon Lesbos for thirty years. The interpreter will read it to you tomorrow, and you can send your answering letters with the prisoners.”
“Seeing that these heathen are so many and we are so few, we could scarcely look for better terms,” I said, “as I hope they will think at Constantinople. At least the prisoners shall sail when all is in order. Now for another matter. Have you inquired as to the Bishop Barnabas and the Egyptian Prince Magas and his daughter?”
“Aye, General, this very day. I found that among the prisoners were three of the commoner sort who have served in Egypt and left that land not three months ago. Of these men two have never heard of the bishop or the others. The third, however, who was wounded in the fight, had some tidings.”
“What tidings, Jodd?”
“None that are good, General. The bishop, he says, was killed by Moslems a while ago, or so he had been told.”
“God rest him. But the others, Jodd, what of the others?”
“This. It seems that the Copt, as he called him, Magas, returned from a long journey, as we know he did, and raised an insurrection somewhere in the south of Egypt, far up the Nile. An expedition was sent against him, under one Musa, the Governor of Egypt, and there was much fighting, in which this prisoner took part. The end of it was that the Copts who fought with Magas were conquered with slaughter, Magas himself was slain, for he would not fly, and his daughter, the lady Heliodore, was taken prisoner with some other Coptic women.”
“And then?” I gasped.
“Then, General, she was brought before the Emir Musa, who, noting her beauty, proposed to make her his slave. At her prayer, however, being, as the prisoner said, a merciful man, he gave her a week to mourn her father before she entered his harem. Still, the worst,” he went on hurriedly, “did not happen. Before that week was done, as the Moslem force was marching down the Nile, she stabbed the eunuch who was in charge of her and escaped.”
“I thank God,” I said. “But, Jodd, how is the man sure that she was Heliodore?”
“Thus: All knew her to be the daughter of Magas, one whom the Egyptians held in honour. Moreover, among the Moslem soldiers she was named ‘the Lady of the Shells,’ because of a certain necklace she wore, which you will remember.”
“What more?” I asked.
“Only that the Emir Musa was very angry at her loss and because of it caused certain soldiers to be beaten on the feet. Moreover, he halted his army and offered a reward for her. For two days they hunted, even searching some tombs where it was thought she might have hidden, but there found nothing but the dead. Then the Emir returned down the Nile, and that is the end of the story.”
“Send this prisoner to me at once, Jodd, with an interpreter. I would question him myself.”
“I fear he is not fit to come, General.”
“Then I will go to him. Lead me, Martina.”
“If so, you must go far, General, for he died an hour ago, and his companions are making him ready for burial.”
“Jodd,” I said angrily, “those men have been in our hands for weeks. How comes it that you did not discover these things before? You had my orders.”
“Because, General, until they knew that they were to go free none of these prisoners would tell us anything. However closely they were questioned, they said that it was against their oath, and that first they would die. A long while ago I asked this very man of Egypt, and he vowed that he had never been there.”
“Be comforted, Olaf,” broke in Martina, “for what more could he have told you?”
“Nothing, perchance,” I answered; “yet I should have gained many days of time. Know that I go to Egypt to search for Heliodore.”
“Be comforted again,” said Martina. “This you could not have done until the peace was signed; it would have been against your oath and duty.”
“That is so,” I answered heavily.
“Olaf,” said Martina to me that night after Jodd had left us, “you say that you will go to Egypt. How will you go? Will the blind Christian general of the Empire, who has just dealt so great a defeat to the mighty Caliph of the East, be welcome in Egypt? Above all, will he be welcomed by the Emir Musa, who rules there, when it is known that he comes to seek a woman who has escaped from that Emir’s harem? Why, within an hour he’d offer you the choice between death and the Koran. Olaf, this thing is madness.”
“It may be, Martina. Still, I go to seek Heliodore.”
“If Heliodore still lives you will not help her by dying, and if she is dead time will be little to her and she can wait for you a while.”
“Yet I go, Martina.”
“You, being blind, go to Egypt to seek one whom those who rule there have searched for in vain. So be it. But how will you go? It cannot be as an open enemy, since then you would need a fleet and ten thousand swords to back you, which you have not. To take a few brave men, unless they were Moslems, which is impossible, would be but to give them to death. How do you go, Olaf?”
“I do not know, Martina. Your brain is more nimble than mine; think, think, and tell me.”
I heard Martina rise and walk up and down the room for a long time. At length she returned and sat herself by me again.
“Olaf,” she said, “you always had a taste for music. You have told me that as a boy in your northern home you used to play upon the harp and sing songs to it of your own making, and now, since you have been blind, you have practised at this art till you are its master. Also, my voice is good; indeed, it is my only gift. It was my voice that first brought me to Irene’s notice, when I was but the daughter of a poor Greek gentleman who had been her father’s friend and therefore was given a small place about the Court. Of late we have sung many songs together, have we not, certain of them in that northern tongue, of which you have taught me something?”
“Yes, Martina; but what of it?”
“You are dull, Olaf. I have heard that these Easterners love music, especially if it be of a sort they do not know. Why, therefore, should not a blind man and his daughter—no, his orphaned niece—earn an honest living as travelling musicians in Egypt? These Prophet worshippers, I am told, think it a great sin to harm one who is maimed—a poor northern trader in amber who has been robbed by Christian thieves. Rendered sightless also that he might not be able to swear to them before the judges, and now, with his sister’s child, winning his bread as best he may. Like you, Olaf, I have skill in languages, and even know enough of Arabic to beg in it, for my mother, who was a Syrian, taught it to me as a child, and since we have been here I have practised. What say you?”
“I say that we might travel as safely thus as in any other way. Yet, Martina, how can I ask you to tie such a burden on your back?”
“Oh! no need to ask, Olaf, since Fate bound it there when it made me your—godmother. Where you go I needs must go also, until you are married,” she added with a laugh. “Afterwards, perhaps, you will need me no more. Well, there’s a plan, for what it is worth, and now we’ll sleep on it, hoping to find a better. Pray to Saint Michael tonight, Olaf.”
As it chanced, Saint Michael gave me no light, so the end of it was that I determined to play this part of a blind harper. In those days there was a trade between Lesbos and Egypt in cedar wood, wool, wine for the Copts, for the Moslems drank none, and other goods. Peace having been declared between the island and the Caliph, a small vessel was laden with such merchandise at my cost, and a Greek of Lesbos, Menas by name, put in command of it as the owner, with a crew of sailors whom I could trust to the death.
To these men, who were Christians, I told my business, swearing them to secrecy by the most holy of all oaths. But, alas! as I shall show, although I could trust these sailors when they were masters of themselves, I could not trust them, or, rather, one of them, when wine was his master. In our northern land we had a saying that “Ale is another man,” and now its truth was to be proved to me, not for the first time.
When all was ready I made known my plans to Jodd alone, in whose hands I left a writing to say what must be done if I returned no more. To the other officers and the soldiers I said only that I proposed to make a journey in this trading ship disguised as a merchant, both for my health’s sake and to discover for myself the state of the surrounding countries, and especially of the Christians in Egypt.
When he had heard all, Jodd, although he was a hopeful-minded man, grew sad over this journey, which I could see he thought would be my last.
“I expected no less,” he said; “and yet, General, I trusted that your saint might keep your feet on some safer path. Doubtless this lady Heliodore is dead, or fled, or wed; at least, you will never find her.”
“Still, I must search for her, Jodd.”
“You are a blind man. How can you search?”
Then an idea came to him, and he added,
“Listen, General. I and the rest of us swore to protect the lady Heliodore and to be as her father or her brothers. Do you bide here. I will go to search for her, either with a vessel full of armed men, or alone, disguised.”
Now I laughed outright and asked,
“What disguise is there that would hide the giant Jodd, whose fame the Moslem spies have spread throughout the East? Why, on the darkest night your voice would betray you to all within a hundred paces. And what use would one shipload of armed men be against the forces of the Emir of Egypt? No, no, Jodd, whatever the danger I must go and I alone. If I am killed, or do not return within eight months, I have named you to be Governor of Lesbos, as already you have been named my deputy by Constantine, which appointment will probably be confirmed.”
“I do not want to be Governor of Lesbos,” said Jodd. “Moreover, Olaf,” he added slowly, “a blind beggar must have his dog to lead him, his brown dog. You cannot go alone, Olaf. Those dangers of which you speak must be shared by another.”
“That is so, and it troubles me much. Indeed, it is in my mind to seek some other guide, for I think this one would be safest here in your charge. You must reason with her, Jodd. One can ask too much, even of a godmother.”
“Of a godmother! Why not say of a grandmother? By Thor! Olaf, you are blind indeed. Still, I’ll try. Hush! Here she comes to say that our supper is ready.”
At our meal several others were present, besides the serving folk, and the talk was general. After it was done I had an interview with some officers. These left, and I sat myself down upon a cushioned couch, and, being tired, there fell asleep, till I was awakened, or, rather, half awakened by voices talking in the garden without. They were those of Jodd and Martina, and Martina was saying,
“Cease your words. I and no one else will go on this Egyptian quest with Olaf. If we die, as I dare say we shall, what does it matter? At least he shall not die alone.”
“And if the quest should fail, Martina? I mean if he should not find the lady Heliodore and you should happen both to return safe, what then?”
“Why, then—nothing, except that as it has been, so it will be. I shall continue to play my part, as is my duty and my wish. Do you not remember that I am Olaf’s godmother?”
“Yes, I remember. Still, I have heard somewhere that the Christian Church never ties a knot which it cannot unloose—for a proper fee, and for my part I do not know why a man should not marry one of different blood because she has been named his godmother before a stone vessel by a man in a broidered robe. You say I do not understand such matters. Perhaps, so let them be. But, Martina, let us suppose that this strange search were to succeed, and Olaf has a way of succeeding where others would fail. For instance, who else could have escaped alive out of the hand of Irene and become governor of Lesbos, and, being blind, yet have planned a great victory? Well, supposing that by the help of gods or men—or women—he should find this beautiful Heliodore, unwed and still willing, and that they should marry. What then, Martina?”
“Then, Captain Jodd,” she answered slowly, “if you are yet of the same mind we may talk again. Only remember that I ask no promises and make none.”
“So you go to Egypt with Olaf?”
“Aye, certainly, unless I should die first, and perhaps even then. You do not understand? Oh! of course you do not understand, nor can I stop to explain to you. Captain Jodd, I am going to Egypt with a certain blind beggar, whose name I forget at the moment, but who is my uncle, where no doubt I shall see many strange things. If ever I come back I will tell you about them, and, meanwhile, good night.”
CHAPTER II: THE STATUES BY THE NILE
The first thing that I remember of this journey to Egypt is that I was sitting in the warm morning sunshine on the deck of our little trading vessel, that went by the name of the heathen goddess, Diana. We were in the port of Alexandria. Martina, who now went by the name of Hilda, stood by my side describing to me the great city that lay before us.
She told me of the famous Pharos still rising from its rock, although in it the warning light no longer burned, for since the Moslems took Egypt they had let it die, as some said because they feared lest it should guide a Christian fleet to attack them. She described also the splendid palaces that the Greeks had built, many of them now empty or burned out, the Christian churches, the mosques, the broad streets and the grass-grown quays.
As we were thus engaged, she talking and I listening and asking questions, she said, “The boat is coming with the Saracen officers of the port, who must inspect and pass the ship before she is allowed to discharge her cargo. Now, Olaf, remember that henceforth you are called Hodur.” (I had taken this name after that of the blind god of the northern peoples.) “Play your part well, and, above all, be humble. If you are reviled, or even struck, show no anger, and be sure to keep that red sword of yours close hidden beneath your robe. If you do these things we shall be safe, for I tell you that we are well disguised.”
The boat came alongside and I heard men climbing the ship’s ladder. Then someone kicked me. It was our captain, Menas, who also had his part to play.
“Out of the road, you blind beggar,” he said. “The noble officers of the Caliph board our ship, and you block their path.”
“Touch not one whom God has afflicted,” said a grave voice, speaking in bad Greek. “It is easy for us to walk round the man. But who is he, captain, and why does he come to Egypt? By their looks he and the woman with him might well have seen happier days.”
“I know not, lord,” answered the captain, “who, after they paid their passage money, took no more note of them. Still they play and sing well, and served to keep the sailors in good humour when we were becalmed.”
“Sir,” I broke in, “I am a Northman named Hodur, and this woman is my niece. I was a trader in amber, but thieves robbed me and my companions of all we had as we journeyed to Constantinople. Me, who was the leader of our band, they held to ransom, blinding me lest I should be able to swear to them again, but the others they killed. This is the only child of my sister, who married a Greek, and now we get our living by our skill in music.”
“Truly you Christians love each other well,” said the officer. “Accept the Koran and you will not be treated thus. But why do you come to Egypt?”
“Sir, we heard that it is a rich land where the people love music, and have come hoping to earn some money here that we may put by to live on. Send us not away, sir; we have a little offering to make. Niece Hilda, where is the gold piece I gave you? Offer it to this lord.”
“Nay, nay,” said the officer. “Shall I take bread out of the mouth of the poor? Clerk,” he added in Arabic to a man who was with him, “make out a writing giving leave to these two to land and to ply their business anywhere in Egypt without question or hindrance, and bring it to me to seal. Farewell, musicians. I fear you will find money scarce in Egypt, for the land has been stricken with a famine. Yet go and prosper in the name of God, and may He turn your hearts to the true faith.”
Thus it came about that through the good mind of this Moslem, whose name, as I learned when we met again, was Yusuf Islam, our feet were lifted over many stumbling-blocks. Thus it seems that by virtue of his office he had power to prevent the entry into the land of such folk as we seemed to be, which power, if they were Christians, was almost always put in force. Yet because he had seen the captain appear to illtreat me, or because, being a soldier himself, he guessed that I was of the same trade, whatever tale it might please me to tell, this rule was not enforced. Moreover, the writing which he gave me enabled me to go where we wished in Egypt without let or hindrance. Whenever we were stopped or threatened, which happened to us several times, it was enough if we presented it to the nearest person in authority who could read, after which we were allowed to pass upon our way unhindered.
Before we left the ship I had a last conversation with the captain, Menas, telling him that he was to lie in the harbour, always pretending that he waited for some cargo not yet forthcoming, such as unharvested corn, or whatever was convenient, until we appeared again. If after a certain while we did not appear, then he was to make a trading journey to neighbouring ports and return to Alexandria. These artifices he must continue to practise until orders to the contrary reached him under my own hand, or until he had sure evidence that we were dead. All this the man promised that he would do.
“Yes,” said Martina, who was with me, “you promise, Captain, and we believe you, but the question is, can you answer for the others? For instance, for the sailor Cosmas there, who, I see, is already drunken and talking loudly about many things.”
“Henceforth, lady, Cosmas shall drink water only. When not in his cups he is an honest fellow, and I do answer for him.”
Yet, alas! as the end showed, Cosmas was not to be answered for by anyone.
We went ashore and took up our abode in a certain house, where we were safe. Whether the Christian owners of that house did or did not know who we were, I am not certain. At any rate, through them we were introduced at night into the palace of Politian, the Melchite Patriarch of Alexandria. He was a stern-faced, black-bearded man of honest heart but narrow views, of whom the Bishop Barnabas had often spoken to me as his closest friend. To this Politian I told all under the seal of our Faith, asking his aid in my quest. When I had finished my tale he thought a while. Then he said,
“You are a bold man, General Olaf; so bold that I think God must be leading you to His own ends. Now, you have heard aright. Barnabas, my beloved brother and your father in Christ, has been taken hence. He was murdered by some fanatic Moslems soon after his return from Constantinople. Also it is true that the Prince Magas was killed in war by the Emir Musa, and that the lady Heliodore escaped out of his clutches. What became of her afterwards no man knows, but for my part I believe that she is dead.”
“And I believe that she is alive,” I answered, “and therefore I go to seek her.”
“Seek and ye shall find,” mused the Patriarch; “at least, I hope so, though my advice to you is to bide here and send others to seek.”
“That I will not do,” I answered again.
“Then go, and God be with you. I’ll warn certain of the faithful of your coming, so that you may not lack a friend at need. When you return, if you should ever return, come to me, for I have more influence with these Moslems than most, and may be able to serve you. I can say no more, and it is not safe that you should tarry here too long. Stay, I forget. There are two things you should know. The first is that the Emir Musa, he who seized the lady Heliodore, is about to be deposed. I have the news from the Caliph Harun himself, for with him I am on friendly terms because of a service I did him through my skill in medicine. The second is that Irene has beguiled Constantine, or bewitched him, I know not which. At least, by his own proclamation once more she rules the Empire jointly with himself, and that I think will be his death warrant, and perhaps yours also.”
“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” I said. “Now if I live I shall learn whether any oaths are sacred to Irene, as will Constantine.”
Then we parted.
Leaving Alexandria, we wandered first to the town of Misra, which stood near to the mighty pyramids, beneath whose shadow we slept one night in an empty tomb. Thence by slow marches we made our way up the banks of the Nile, earning our daily bread by the exercise of our art. Once or twice we were stopped as spies, but always released again when I produced the writing that the officer Yusuf Islam had given me upon the ship. For the rest, none molested us in a land where wandering beggars were so common. Of money it is true we earned little, but as we had gold in plenty sewn into our garments this did not matter. Food was all we needed, and that, as I have said, was never lacking.
So we went on our strange journey, day by day learning more of the tongues spoken in Egypt, and especially of Arabic, which the Moslems used. Whither did we journey? We know not for certain. What I sought to find were those two huge statues of which I had dreamed at Aarhus on the night of the robbing of the Wanderer’s tomb. We heard that there were such figures of stone, which were said to sing at daybreak, and that they sat upon a plain on the western bank of the Nile, near to the ruins of the great city of Thebes, now but a village, called by the Arabs El-Uksor, or “the Palaces.” So far as we could discover, it was in the neighbourhood of this city that Heliodore had escaped from Musa, and there, if anywhere, I hoped to gain tidings of her fate. Also something within my heart drew me to those images of forgotten gods or men.
At length, two months or more after we left Alexandria, from the deck of the boat in which we had hired a passage for the last hundred miles of our journey, Martina saw to the east the ruins of Thebes. To the west she saw other ruins, and seated in front of them two mighty figures of stone.
“This is the place,” she said, and my heart leapt at her words. “Now let us land and follow our fortune.”
So when the boat was tied up at sunset, to the west bank of the river, as it happened, we bade farewell to the owner and went ashore.
“Whither now?” asked Martina.
“To the figures of stone,” I answered.
So she led me through fields in which the corn was growing, to the edge of the desert, meeting no man all the way. Then for a mile or more we tramped through sand, till at length, late at night, Martina halted.
“We stand beneath the statues,” she said, “and they are awesome to look on; mighty, seated kings, higher than a tall tree.”
“What lies behind them?” I asked.
“The ruins of a great temple.”
“Lead me to that temple.”
So we passed through a gateway into a court, and there we halted.
“Now tell me what you see,” I said.
“We stand in what has been a hall of many columns,” she answered, “but the most of them are broken. At our feet is a pool in which there is a little water. Before us lies the plain on which the statues sit, stretching some miles to the Nile, that is fringed with palms. Across the broad Nile are the ruins of old Thebes. Behind us are more ruins and a line of rugged hills of stone, and in them, a little to the north, the mouth of a valley. The scene is very beautiful beneath the moon, but very sad and desolate.”
“It is the place that I saw in my dream many years ago at Aarhus,” I said.
“It may be,” she answered, “but if so it must have changed, since, save for a jackal creeping among the columns and a dog that barks in some distant village, I neither see nor hear a living thing. What now, Olaf?”
“Now we will eat and sleep,” I said. “Perhaps light will come to us in our sleep.”
So we ate of the food we had brought with us, and afterwards lay down to rest in a little chamber, painted round with gods, that Martina found in the ruins of the temple.
During that night no dreams came to me, nor did anything happen to disturb us, even in this old temple, of which the very paving-stones were worn through by the feet of the dead.
Before the dawn Martina led me back to the colossal statues, and we waited there, hoping that we should hear them sing, as tradition said they did when the sun rose. Yet the sun came up as it had done from the beginning of the world, and struck upon those giant effigies as it had done for some two thousand years, or so I was told, and they remained quite silent. I do not think that ever I grieved more over my blindness than on this day, when I must depend upon Martina to tell me of the glory of that sunrise over the Egyptian desert and those mighty ruins reared by the hands of forgotten men.
Well, the sun rose, and, since the statues would not speak, I took my harp and played upon it, and Martina sang a wild Eastern song to my playing. It seemed that our music was heard. At any rate, a few folk going out to labour came to see by whom it was caused, and finding only two wandering musicians, presently went away again. Still, one remained, a woman, Coptic by her dress, with whom I heard Martina talk. She asked who we were and why we had come to such a place, whereon Martina repeated to her the story which we had told a hundred times. The woman answered that we should earn little money in those parts, as the famine had been sore there owing to the low Nile of the previous season. Until the crops were ripe again, which in the case of most of them would not be for some weeks, even food, she added, must be scarce, though few were left to eat it, since the Moslems had killed out most of those who dwelt in that district of Upper Egypt.
Martina replied that she knew this was so, and therefore we had proposed either to travel on to Nubia or to return north. Still, as I, her blind uncle, was not well, we had landed from a boat hoping that we might find some place where we could rest for a week or two until I grew stronger.
“Yet,” she continued meaningly, “being poor Christian folk we know not where to look for such a place, since Cross worshippers are not welcome among those who follow the Prophet.”
Now, when the woman heard that we were Christians her voice changed. “I also am a Christian,” she said; “but give me the sign.”
So we made the sign of the Cross on our breasts, which a Moslem will die rather than do.
“My husband and I,” went on the woman, “live yonder at the village of Kurna, which is situated near to the mouth of the valley that is called Biban-el-Meluk, or Gate of the Kings, for there the monarchs of old days, who were the forefathers or rulers of us Copts, lie buried. It is but a very small village, for the Moslems have killed most of us in a war that was raised a while ago between them and our hereditary prince, Magas. Yet my husband and I have a good house there, and, being poor, shall be glad to give you food and shelter if you can pay us something.”
The end of it was that after some chaffering, for we dared not show that we had much money, a bargain was struck between us and this good woman, who was named Palka. Having paid her a week’s charges in advance, she led us to the village of Kurna, which was nearly an hour’s walk away, and here made us known to her husband, a middle-aged man named Marcus, who took little note of anything save his farming.
This he carried on upon a patch of fertile ground that was irrigated by a spring which flowed from the mountains; also he had other lands near to the Nile, where he grew corn and fodder for his beasts. In his house, that once had been part of some great stone building of the ancients, and still remained far larger than he could use, for this pair had no children, we were given two good rooms. Here we dwelt in comfort, since, notwithstanding the scarcity of the times, Marcus was richer than he seemed and lived well. As for the village of Kurna, its people all told did not amount to more than thirty souls, Christians every one of them, who were visited from time to time by a Coptic priest from some distant monastery in the mountains.
By degrees we grew friendly with Palka, a pleasant, bustling woman of good birth, who loved to hear of the outside world. Moreover, she was very shrewd, and soon began to suspect that we were more than mere wandering players.
Pretending to be weak and ill, I did not go out much, but followed her about the house while she was working, talking to her on many matters.
Thus I led up to the subject of Prince Magas and his rebellion, and learned that he had been killed at a place about fifty miles south from Kurna. Then I asked if it were true that his daughter had been killed with him.
“What do you know of the lady Heliodore?” she asked sharply.
“Only that my niece, who for a while was a servant in the palace at Constantinople before she was driven away with others after the Empress fell, saw her there. Indeed, it was her business to wait upon her and her father the Prince. Therefore, she is interested in her fate.”
“It seems that you are more interested than your niece, who has never spoken a word to me concerning her,” answered Palka. “Well, since you are a man, I should not have thought this strange, had you not been blind, for they say she was the most beautiful woman in Egypt. As for her fate, you must ask God, since none know it. When the army of Musa was encamped yonder by the Nile my husband, Marcus, who had taken two donkey-loads of forage for sale to the camp and was returning by moonlight, saw her run past him, a red knife in her hand, her face set towards the Gateway of the Kings. After that he saw her no more, nor did anyone else, although they hunted long enough, even in the tombs, which the Moslems, like our people, fear to visit. Doubtless she fell or threw herself into some hole in the rocks; or perhaps the wild beasts ate her. Better so than that a child of the old Pharaohs should become the woman of an infidel.”
“Yes,” I answered, “better so. But why do folk fear to visit those tombs of which you speak, Palka?”
“Why? Because they are haunted, that is all, and even the bravest dread the sight of a ghost. How could they be otherwise than haunted, seeing that yonder valley is sown with the mighty dead like a field with corn?”
“Yet the dead sleep quietly enough, Palka.”
“Aye, the common dead, Hodur; but not these kings and queens and princes, who, being gods of a kind, cannot die. It is said that they hold their revels yonder at night with songs and wild laughter, and that those who look upon them come to an evil end within a year. Whether this be so I cannot say, since for many years none have dared to visit that place at night. Yet that they eat I know well enough.”
“How do you know, Palka?”
“For a good reason. With the others in this village I supply the offerings of their food. The story runs that once the great building, of which this house is a part, was a college of heathen priests whose duty it was to make offerings to the dead in the royal tombs. When the Christians came, those priests were driven away, but we of Kurna who live in their house still make the offerings. If we did not, misfortune would overtake us, as indeed has always happened if they were forgotten or neglected. It is the rent that we pay to the ghosts of the kings. Twice a week we pay it, setting food and milk and water upon a certain stone near to the mouth of the valley.”
“Then what happens, Palka?”
“Nothing, except that the offering is taken.”
“By beggar folk, or perchance by wild creatures!”
“Would beggar folk dare to enter that place of death?” she answered with contempt. “Or would wild beasts take the food and pile the dishes neatly together and replace the flat stones on the mouths of the jars of milk and water, as a housewife might? Oh! do not laugh. Of late this has always been done, as I who often fetch the vessels know well.”
“Have you ever seen these ghosts, Palka?”
“Yes, once I saw one of them. It was about two months ago that I passed the mouth of the valley after moonrise, for I had been kept out late searching for a kid which was lost. Thinking that it might be in the valley, I peered up it. As I was looking, from round a great rock glided a ghost. She stood still, with the moonlight shining on her, and gazed towards the Nile. I, too, stood still in the shadow, thirty or forty paces away. Then she threw up her arms as though in despair, turned and vanished.”
“She!” I said, then checked myself and asked indifferently: “Well, what was the fashion of this ghost?”
“So far as I could see that of a young and beautiful woman, wearing such clothes as we find upon the ancient dead, only wrapped more loosely about her.”
“Had she aught upon her head, Palka?”
“Yes, a band of gold or a crown set upon her hair, and about her neck what seemed to be a necklace of green and gold, for the moonlight flashed upon it. It was much such a necklace as you wear beneath your robe, Hodur.”
“And pray how do you know what I wear, Palka?” I asked.
“By means of what you lack, poor man, the eyes in my head. One night when you were asleep I had need to pass through your chamber to reach another beyond. You had thrown off your outer garment because of the heat, and I saw the necklace. Also I saw a great red sword lying by your side and noted on your bare breast sundry scars, such as hunters and soldiers come by. All of these things, Hodur, I thought strange, seeing that I know you to be nothing but a poor blind beggar who gains his bread by his skill upon the harp.”
“There are beggars who were not always beggars, Palka,” I said slowly.
“Quite so, Hodur, and there are great men and rich who sometimes appear to be beggars, and—many other things. Still, have no fear that we shall steal your necklace or talk about the red sword or the gold with which your niece Hilda weights her garments. Poor girl, she has all the ways of a fine lady, one who has known Courts, as I think you said was the case. It must be sad for her to have fallen so low. Still, have no fear, Hodur,” and she took my hand and pressed it in a certain secret fashion which was practised among the persecuted Christians in the East when they would reveal themselves to each other. Then she went away laughing.
As for me, I sought Martina, who had been sleeping through the heat, and told her everything.
“Well,” she said when I had finished, “you should give thanks to God, Olaf, since without doubt this ghost is the lady Heliodore. So should Jodd,” I heard her add beneath her breath, for in my blindness my ears had grown very quick.
Martina and I had made a plan. Palka, after much coaxing, took us with her one evening when she went to place the accustomed offerings in the Valley of the Dead. Indeed, at first she refused outright to allow us to accompany her, because, she said, only those who were born in the village of Kurna had made such offerings since the days when the Pharaohs ruled, and that if strangers shared in this duty it might bring misfortune. We answered, however, that if so the misfortune would fall on us, the intruders. Also we pointed out that the jars of water and milk were heavy, and, as it happened, there was no one from the hamlet to help to carry them this night. Having weighed these facts, Palka changed her mind.
“Well,” she said, “it is true that I grow fat, and after labouring all day at this and that have no desire to bear burdens like an ass. So come if you will, and if you die or evil spirits carry you away, do not add yourselves to the number of the ghosts, of whom there are too many hereabouts, and blame me afterwards.”
“On the contrary,” I said, “we will make you our heirs,” and I laid a bag containing some pieces of money upon the table.
Palka, who was a saving woman, took the money, for I heard it rattle in her hand, hung the jars about my shoulders, and gave Martina the meat and corn in a basket. The flat cakes, however, she carried herself on a wooden trencher, because, as she said, she feared lest we should break them and anger the ghosts, who liked their food to be well served. So we started, and presently entered the mouth of that awful valley which, Martina told me, looked as though it had been riven through the mountain by lightning strokes and then blasted with a curse.
Up this dry and desolate place, which, she said, was bordered on either side by walls of grey and jagged rock, we walked in silence. Only I noted that the dog which had followed us from the house clung close to our heels and now and again whimpered uneasily.
“The beast sees what we cannot see,” whispered Palka in explanation.
At last we halted, and I set down the jars at her bidding upon a flat rock which she called the Table of Offerings.
“See!” she exclaimed to Martina, “those that were placed here three days ago are all emptied and neatly piled together by the ghosts. I told Hodur that they did this, but he would not believe me. Now let us pack them up in the baskets and begone, for the sun sets and the moon rises within the half of an hour. I would not be here in the dark for ten pieces of pure gold.”
“Then go swiftly, Palka,” I said, “for we bide here this night.”
“Are you mad?” she asked.
“Not at all,” I answered. “A wise man once told me that if one who is blind can but come face to face with a spirit, he sees it and thereby regains his sight. If you would know the truth, that is why I have wandered so far from my own country to find some land where ghosts may be met.”
“Now I am sure that you are mad,” exclaimed Palka. “Come, Hilda, and leave this fool to make trial of his cure for blindness.”
“Nay,” answered Martina, “I must stay with my uncle, although I am very much afraid. If I did not, he would beat me afterwards.”
“Beat you! Hodur beat a woman! Oh! you are both mad. Or perhaps you are ghosts also. I have thought it once or twice, who at least am sure that you are other than you seem. Holy Jesus! This place grows dark, and I tell you it is full of dead kings. May the Saints guard you; at the least, you’ll keep high company at your death. Farewell; whate’er befalls, blame me not who warned you,” and she departed at a run, the empty vessels rattling on her back and the dog yapping behind her.
When she had gone the silence grew deep.
“Now, Martina,” I whispered, “find some place where we may hide whence you can see this Table of Offerings.”
She led me to where a fallen rock lay within a few paces, and behind it we sat ourselves down in such a position that Martina could watch the Table of Offerings by the light of the moon.
Here we waited for a long while; it may have been two hours, or three, or four. At least I knew that, although I could see nothing, the solemnity of that place sank into my soul. I felt as though the dead were moving about me in the silence. I think it was the same with Martina, for although the night was very hot in that stifling, airless valley, she shivered at my side. At last I felt her start and heard her whisper:
“I see a figure. It creeps from the shadow of the cliff towards the Table of Offerings.”
“What is it like?” I asked.
“It is a woman’s figure draped in white cloths; she looks about her; she takes up the offerings and places them in a basket she carries. It is a woman—no ghost—for she drinks from one of the jars. Oh! now the moonlight shines upon her face; it is that of Heliodore!”
I heard and could restrain myself no longer. Leaping up, I ran towards where I knew the Table of Offerings to be. I tried to speak, but my voice choked in my throat. The woman saw or heard me coming through the shadows. At this, uttering a low cry, she fled away, for I caught the sound of her feet on the rocks and sand. Then I tripped over a stone and fell down.
In a moment Martina was at my side.
“Truly you are foolish, Olaf,” she said. “Did you think that the lady Heliodore would know you at night, changed as you are and in this garb, that you must rush at her like an angry bull? Now she has gone, and perchance we shall never find her more. Why did you not speak to her?”
“Because my voice choked within me. Oh! blame me not, Martina. If you knew what it is to love as I do and after so many fears and sorrows——”
“I trust that I should know also how to control my love,” broke in Martina sharply. “Come, waste no more time in talk. Let us search.”
Then she took me by the hand and led me to where she had last seen Heliodore.
“She has vanished away,” she said, “here is nothing but rock.”
“It cannot be,” I answered. “Oh! that I had my eyes again, if for an hour, I who was the best tracker in Jutland. See if no stone has been stirred, Martina. The sand will be damper where it has lain.”
She left me, and presently returned.
“I have found something,” she said. “When Heliodore fled she still held her basket, which from the look of it was last used by the Pharaohs. At least, one of the cakes has fallen from or through it. Come.”
She led me to the cliff, and up it to perhaps twice the height of a man, then round a projecting rock.
“Here is a hole,” she said, “such as jackals might make. Perchance it leads into one of the old tombs whereof the mouth is sealed. It was on the edge of the hole that I found the cake, therefore doubtless Heliodore went down it. Now, what shall we do?”
“Follow, I think. Where is it?”
“Nay, I go first. Give me your hand, Olaf, and lie upon your breast.”
I did so, and presently felt the weight of Martina swinging on my arm.
“Leave go,” she said faintly, like one who is afraid.
I obeyed, though with doubt, and heard her feet strike upon some floor.
“Thanks be the saints, all is well,” she said. “For aught I knew this hole might have been as deep as that in the Chamber of the Pit. Let yourself down it, feet first, and drop. ’Tis but shallow.”
I did so, and found myself beside Martina.
“Now, in the darkness you are the better guide,” she whispered. “Lead on, I’ll follow, holding to your robe.”
So I crept forward warily and safely, as the blind can do, till presently she exclaimed, “Halt, here is light again. I think that the roof of the tomb, for by the paintings on the walls such it must be, has fallen in. It seems to be a kind of central chamber, out of which run great galleries that slope downwards and are full of bats. Ah! one of them is caught in my hair. Olaf, I will go no farther. I fear bats more than ghosts, or anything in the world.”
Now, I considered a while till a thought struck me. On my back was my beggar’s harp. I unslung it and swept its chords, and wild and sad they sounded in that solemn place. Then I began to sing an old song that twice or thrice I had sung with Heliodore in Constantinople. This song told of a lover seeking his mistress. It was for two voices, since in the song the mistress answered verse for verse. Here are those of the lines that I remember, or, rather, the spirit of them rendered into English. I sang the first verse and waited.
“Dear maid of mine,
I bid my strings
Beat on thy shrine
With music’s wings.
Palace or cell
A shrine I see,
If there thou dwell
And answer me.”
There was no answer, so I sang the second verse and once more waited.
“On thy love’s fire
My passion breathes,
Wind of Desire
Thy incense wreathes.
Greeting! To thee,
Or soon or late,
I, bond or free,
And from somewhere far away in the recesses of that great cave came the answering strophe.
“O Love sublime
No touch of Time
Upon thee laid.
Take that is thine;
Ended the quest!
I seek my shrine
Upon thy breast.”
Then I laid down the harp.
At last a voice, the voice of Heliodore speaking whence I knew not, asked, “Do the dead sing, or is it a living man? And if so, how is that man named?”
“A living man,” I replied, “and he is named Olaf, son of Thorvald, or otherwise Michael. That name was given him in the cathedral at Constantinople, where first his eyes fell on a certain Heliodore, daughter of Magas the Egyptian, whom now he seeks.”
I heard the sound of footsteps creeping towards me and Heliodore’s voice say, “Let me see your face, you who name yourself Olaf, for know that in these haunted tombs ghosts and visions and mocking voices play strange tricks. Why do you hide your face, you who call yourself Olaf?”
“Because the eyes are gone from it, Heliodore. Irene robbed it of the eyes from jealousy of you, swearing that never more should they behold your beauty. Perchance you would not wish to come too near to an eyeless man wrapped in a beggar’s robe.”
She looked…I felt her look. She sobbed…I heard her sob, and then her arms were about me and her lips were pressed upon my own.
So at length came joy such as I cannot tell; the joy of lost love found again.
A while went by, how long I know not, and at last I said, “Where is Martina? It is time we left this place.”
“Martina!” she exclaimed. “Do you mean Irene’s lady, and is she here? If so, how comes she to be travelling with you, Olaf?”
“As the best friend man ever had, Heliodore; as one who clung to him in his ruin and saved him from a cruel death; as one who has risked her life to help him in his desperate search, and without whom that search would had failed.”
“Then may God reward her, Olaf, for I did not know there were such women in the world. Lady Martina! Where are you, lady Martina?”
Thrice she cried the words, and at the third time an answer came from the shadows at a distance.
“I am here,” said Martina’s voice with a little yawn. “I was weary and have slept while you two greeted each other. Well met at last, Lady Heliodore. See, I have brought you back your Olaf, blind it is true, but otherwise lacking nothing of health and strength and station.”
Then Heliodore ran to her and kissed first her hand and next her lips. In after days she told me that for those of one who had been sleeping the eyes of Martina seemed to be strangely wet and red. But if this were so her voice trembled not at all.
“Truly you two should give thanks to God,” she said, “Who has brought you together again in so wondrous a fashion, as I do on your behalf from the bottom of my heart. Yet you are still hemmed round by dangers many and great. What now, Olaf? Will you become a ghost also and dwell here in the tomb with Heliodore; and if so, what tale shall I tell to Palka and the rest?”
“Not so,” I answered. “I think it will be best that we should return to Kurna. Heliodore must play her part as the spirit of a queen till we can hire some boat and escape with her down the Nile.”
“Never,” she cried, “I cannot, I cannot. Having come together we must separate no more. Oh! Olaf, you do not know what a life has been mine during all these dreadful months. When I escaped from Musa by stabbing the eunuch who was in charge of me, for which hideous deed may I be forgiven,” and I felt her shudder at my side, “I fled I knew not whither till I found myself in this valley, where I hid till the night was gone. Then at daybreak I peeped out from the mouth of the valley and saw the Moslems searching for me, but as yet a long way off. Also now I knew this valley. It was that to which my father had brought me as a child when he came to search for the burying-place of his ancestor, the Pharaoh, which records he had read told him was here. I remembered everything: where the tomb should be, how we had entered it through a hole, how we had found the mummy of a royal lady, whose face was covered with a gilded mask, and on her breast the necklace which I wear.
“I ran along the valley, searching the left side of it with my eyes, till I saw a flat stone which I knew again. It was called the Table of Offerings. I was sure that the hole by which we had entered the tomb was quite near to this stone and a little above it, in the face of the cliff. I climbed; I found what seemed to be the hole, though of this I could not be certain. I crept down it till it came to an end, and then, in my terror, hung by my hands and dropped into the darkness, not knowing whither I fell, or caring over much if I were killed. As it chanced it was but a little way, and, finding myself unhurt, I crawled along the cavern till I reached this place where there is light, for here the roof of the cave has fallen in. While I crouched amid the rocks I heard the voices of the soldiers above me, heard their officer also bidding them bring ropes and torches. To the left of where you stand there is a sloping passage that runs down to the great central chamber where sleeps some mighty king, and out of this passage open other chambers. Into the first of these the light of the morning sun struggles feebly. I entered it, seeking somewhere to hide myself, and saw a painted coffin lying on the floor near to the marble sarcophagus from which it had been dragged. It was that in which we had found the body of my ancestress; but since then thieves had been in this place. We had left the coffin in the sarcophagus and the mummy in the coffin, and replaced their lids. Now the mummy lay on the floor, half unwrapped and broken in two beneath the breast. Moreover, the face, which I remembered as being so like my own, was gone to dust, so that there remained of it nothing but a skull, to which hung tresses of long black hair, as, indeed, you may see for yourself.
“By the side of the body was the gilded mask, with black and staring eyes, and the painted breast-piece of stiff linen, neither of which the thieves had found worth stealing.
“I looked and a thought came to me. Lifting the mummy, I thrust it into the sarcophagus, all of it save the gilded mask and the painted breast-piece of stiff linen. Then I laid myself down in the coffin, of which the lid, still lying crosswise, hid me to the waist, and drew the gilded mask and painted breast-piece over my head and bosom. Scarcely was it done when the soldiers entered. By now the reflected sunlight had faded from the place, leaving it in deep shadow; but some of the men held burning torches made from splinters of old coffins, that were full of pitch.
“‘Feet have passed here; I saw the marks of them in the dust,’ said the officer. ‘She may have hidden in this place. Search! Search! It will go hard with us if we return to Musa to tell him that he has lost his toy.’
“They looked into the sarcophagus and saw the broken mummy. Indeed, one of them lifted it, unwillingly enough, and let it fall again, saying grimly, ‘Musa would scarce care for this companion, though in her day she may have been fair enough.’ Then they came to the coffin. ‘Here’s another,’ exclaimed the soldier, ‘and one with a gold face. Allah! how its eyes stare.’
“‘Pull it out,’ said the officer.
“‘Let that be your task,’ answered the man. ‘I’ll defile myself with no more corpses.’
“The officer came and looked. ‘What a haunted hole is this, full of the ghosts of idol worshippers, or so I think,’ he said. ‘Those eyes stare curses at us. Well, the Christian maid is not here. On, before the torches fail.’
“Then they went, leaving me; the painted linen creaked upon my breast as I breathed again. Till nightfall I lay in that coffin, fearing lest they should return; and I tell you, Olaf, that strange dreams came to me there, for I think I swooned or slept in that narrow bed. Yes, dreams of the past, which you shall hear one day, if we live, for they seem to have to do with you and me. Aye, I thought that the dead woman in the sarcophagus at my side awoke and told them to me. At length I rose and crept back to this place where we stand, for here I could see the friendly light, and being outworn, laid me down and slept.
“At the first break of day I crawled from the tomb, followed that same road by which I had entered, though I found it hard to climb up through the entrance hole.
“No living thing was to be seen in the valley, except a great night bird flitting to its haunt. I was parched with thirst, and knowing that in this dry place I soon must perish, I glided from rock to rock towards the mouth of the valley, thinking to find some other grave or cranny where I might lie hid till night came again and I could descend to the plain and drink. But, Olaf, before I had gone many steps I discovered fresh food, milk and water laid upon a rock, and though I feared lest they might be poisoned, ate and drank of them. When I knew that they were wholesome I thought that some friend must have set them there to satisfy my wants, though I knew not who the friend could be. Afterwards I learned that this food was an offering to the ghosts of the dead. Among our forefathers in forgotten generations it was, I know, the custom to make such offerings, since in their blindness they believed that the spirts of their beloved needed sustenance as their bodies once had done. Doubtless the memory of the rite still survives; at least, to this day the offerings are made. Indeed, when it was found that they were not made in vain, more and more of them were brought, so that I have lacked nothing.
“Here then I have dwelt for many moons among the dust of men departed, only now and again wandering out at night. Once or twice folk have seen me when I ventured to the plains, and I have been tempted to speak to them and ask their help. But always they fled away, believing me to be the ghost of some bygone queen. Indeed, to speak truth, Olaf, this companionship with spirits, for spirits do dwell in these tombs—I have seen them, I tell you I have seen them—has so worked upon my soul that at times I feel as though I were already of their company. Moreover, I knew that I could not live long. The loneliness was sucking up my life as the dry sand sucks water. Had you not come, Olaf, within some few days or weeks I should have died.”
Now I spoke for the first time, saying,
“And did you wish to die, Heliodore?”
“No. Before the war between Musa and my father, Magas, news came to us from Constantinople that Irene had killed you. All believed it save I, who did not believe.”
“Why not, Heliodore?”
“Because I could not feel that you were dead. Therefore I fought for my life, who otherwise, after we were conquered and ruined and my father was slain fighting nobly, should have stabbed, not that eunuch, but myself. Then later, in this tomb, I came to know that you were not dead. The other lost ones I could feel about me from time to time, but you never, you who would have been the first to seek me when my soul was open to such whisperings. So I lived on when all else would have died, because hope burned in me like a lamp unquenchable. And at last you came! Oh! at last you came!”
CHAPTER IV: THE CALIPH HARUN
Here there is an absolute blank in my story. One of those walls of oblivion of which I have spoken seems to be built across its path. It is as though a stream had plunged suddenly from some bright valley into the bosom of a mountain side and there vanished from the ken of man. What happened in the tomb after Heliodore had ended her tale; whether we departed thence together or left her there a while; how we escaped from Kurna, and by what good fortune or artifice we came safely to Alexandria, I know not. As to all these matters my vision fails me utterly. So far as I am concerned, they are buried beneath the dust of time. I know as little of them as I know of where and how I slept between my life as Olaf and this present life of mine; that is, nothing at all. Yet in this way or in that the stream did win through the mountain, since beyond all grows clear again.
Once more I stood upon the deck of the Diana in the harbour of Alexandria. With me were Martina and Heliodore. Heliodore’s face was stained and she was dressed as a boy, such a harlequin lad as singers and mountebanks often take in their company. The ship was ready to start and the wind served. Yet we could not sail because of the lack of some permission. A Moslem galley patrolled the harbour and threatened to sink us if we dared to weigh without this paper. The mate had gone ashore with a bribe. We waited and waited. At length the captain, Menas, who stood by me, whispered into my ear,
“Be calm; he comes; all is well.”
Then I heard the mate shout: “I have the writing under seal,” and Menas gave the order to cast off the ropes that held the ship to the quay. One of the sailors came up and reported to Menas that their companion, Cosmas, was missing. It seemed that he had slipped ashore without leave and had not returned.
“There let him bide,” said Menas, with an oath. “Doubtless the hog lies drunk in some den. When he awakes he may tell what tale he pleases and find his own way back to Lesbos. Cast off, cast off! I say.”
At this moment that same Cosmas appeared. I could not see him, but I could hear him plainly enough. Evidently he had become involved in some brawl, for an angry woman and others were demanding money of him and he was shouting back drunken threats. A man struck him and the woman got him by the beard. Then his reason left him altogether.
“Am I, a Christian, to be treated thus by you heathen dogs?” he screamed. “Oh, you think I am dirt beneath your feet. I have friends, I tell you I have friends. You know not whom I serve. I say that I am a soldier of Olaf the Northman, Olaf the Blind, Olaf Red-Sword, he who made you prophet-worshippers sing so small at Mytilene, as he will do again ere long.”
“Indeed, friend,” said a quiet voice. It was that of the Moslem captain, Yusuf Islam, he who befriended us when we arrived at Alexandria, who had been watching all this scene. “Then you serve a great general, as some of us have cause to know. Tell me, where is he now, for I hear that he has left Lesbos?”
“Where is he? Why, aboard yonder ship, of course. Oh! he has fooled you finely. Another time you’ll search beggar’s rags more closely.”
“Cast off! Cast off!” roared Menas.
“Nay,” said the officer, “cast not off. Soldiers, drive away those men. I must have words with the captain of this ship. Come, bring that drunken fellow with you.”
“Now all is finished,” I said.
“Yes,” answered Heliodore, “all is finished. After we have endured so much it is hard. Well, at least death remains to us.”
“Hold your hand,” exclaimed Martina. “God still lives and can save us yet.”
Black bitterness took hold of me. In some few days I had hoped to reach Lesbos, and there be wed to Heliodore. And now! And now!
“Cut the ropes, Menas,” I cried, “and out with the oars. We’ll risk the galley. You, Martina, set me at the mouth of the gangway and tell me when to strike. Though I be blind I may yet hold them back till we clear the quay.”
She obeyed, and I drew the red sword from beneath my rags. Then, amidst the confusion which followed, I heard the grave voice of Yusuf Islam speaking to me.
“Sir,” he said, “for your own sake I pray you put up that sword, which we think is one whereof tales have been told. To fight is useless, for I have bowmen who can shoot you down and spears that can outreach you. General Olaf, a brave man should know when to surrender, especially if he be blind.”
“Aye, sir,” I answered, “and a brave man should know when to die.”
“Why should you die, General?” went on the voice. “I do not know that for a Christian to visit Egypt disguised as a beggar will be held a crime worthy of death, unless indeed you came hither to spy out the land.”
“Can the blind spy?” asked Martina indignantly.
“Who can say, Lady? But certainly it seems that youreyes are bright and quick enough. Also there is another matter. A while ago, when this ship came to Alexandria, I signed a paper giving leave to a certain eyeless musician and his niece to ply their trade in Egypt. Then there were two of you; now I behold a third. Who is that comely lad with a stained face that stands beside you?”
Heliodore began some story, saying that she was the orphan son of I forget whom, and while she told it certain of the Moslems slipped past me.
“Truly you should do well in the singing trade,” interrupted the officer with a laugh, “seeing that for a boy your voice is wondrous sweet. Are you quite sure that you remember your sex aright? Well, it can easily be proved. Bare that lad’s bosom, soldiers. Nay, ’tis needless; snatch off that head-dress.”
A man obeyed, and Heliodore’s beautiful black hair, which I would not suffer her to cut, fell tumbling to her knees.
“Let me be,” she said. “I admit that I am a woman.”
“That is generous of you, Lady,” the officer answered in the midst of the laughter which followed. “Now will you add to your goodness by telling me your name? You refuse? Then shall I help you? In the late Coptic war it was my happy fortune twice to see a certain noble maiden, the daughter of Magas the Prince, whom the Emir Musa afterwards took for himself, but who fled from him. Tell me, Lady, have you a twin sister?”
“Cease your mockings, sir,” said Heliodore despairingly. “I am she you seek.”
“’Tis Musa seeks you, Lady, not I.”
“Then, sir, he seeks in vain, for know that ere he finds I die. Oh! sir, I know you have a noble heart; be pitiful and let us go. I’ll tell you all the truth. Olaf Red-Sword yonder and I have long been affianced. Blind though he is, he sought me through great dangers, aye, and found me. Would you part us at the last? In the name of the God we both worship, and of your mother, I pray you let us go.”
“By the Prophet, that I would do, Lady, only then I fear me that I should let my head go from its shoulders also. There are too many in this secret for it to bide there long if I did as you desire. Nay, you must go to the Emir, all three of you—not Musa, but to his rival, Obaidallah, who loves him little, and by the decree of the Caliph once again rules Egypt. Be sure that in a matter between you and Musa you will meet with justice from Obaidallah. Come now, fearing nothing, to where we may find you all garments more befitting to your station than those mummer’s robes.”
So a guard was formed round us, and we went. As my feet touched the quay I heard a sound of angry voices, followed by groans and a splash in the water.
“What is that?” I asked of Yusuf Islam.
“I think, General, that your servants from the Diana have settled some account that they had with the drunken dog who was so good as to bark out your name to me. But, with your leave, I will not look to make sure.”
“God pardon him! As yet I cannot,” I muttered, and marched on.
We stood, whether on that day or another I do not know, in some hall of judgment. Martina whispered to me that a small, dark man was seated in the chair of state, and about him priests and others. This was the Emir Obaidallah. Musa, that had been Emir, who, she said, was fat and sullen, was there also, and whenever his glance fell upon Heliodore I felt her shiver at my side. So was the Patriarch Politian who pleaded our cause. The case was long, so long that, being courteous as ever, they gave us cushions to sit on, also, in an interval, food and sherbet.
Musa claimed Heliodore as his slave. An officer who prosecuted claimed that Allah having given me, their enemy and a well-known general who had done them much damage, into their hands, I should be put to death. Politian answered on behalf of all of us, saying that we had harmed no man. He added that as there was a truce between the Christians and the Moslems, I could not be made to suffer the penalties of war in a time of peace, who had come to Egypt but to seek a maid to whom I was affianced. Moreover, that even if it were so, the murder of prisoners was not one of those penalties.
The Emir listened to all but said little. At length, however, he asked whether we were willing to become Moslems, since if so he thought that we might go free. We answered that we were not willing.
“Then it would seem,” he said, “that the lady Heliodore, having been taken in war, must be treated as a prisoner of war, the only question being to whom she belongs.”
Now Musa interrupted angrily, shouting out that as to this there was no doubt, since she belonged to him, who had captured her during his tenure of office.
The Emir thought a while, and we waited trembling. At last he gave judgment, saying:
“The General Olaf the Blind, who in Constantinople was known as Olaf Red-Sword or as Michael, and who while in the service of the Empress Irene often made war against the followers of the Prophet, but who afterwards lost his eyes at the hands of this same evil woman, is a man of whom all the world has heard. Particularly have we Moslems heard of him, seeing that as governor of Lesbos in recent days he inflicted a great defeat upon our navy, slaying many thousands and taking others prisoner. But as it chances God, Who bides His time to work justice, set a bait for him in the shape of a fair woman. On this bait he has been hooked, notwithstanding all his skill and cunning, and delivered into our hands, having come into Egypt disguised as a beggar in order to seek out that woman. Still, as he is so famous a man, and as at present there is a truce between us and the Empire of the East, which truce raises certain doubtful points of high policy, I decree that his case be remitted to the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid, my master, and that he be conveyed to Baghdad there to await judgment. With him will go the woman whom he alleges to be his niece, but who, as we are informed, was one of the waiting-ladies of the Empress Irene. Against her there is nothing to be said save that she may be a Roman spy.
“Now I come to the matter of the lady Heliodore, who is reported to be the wife or the lover or the affianced of this General Olaf, a question of which God alone knows the truth. This lady Heliodore is a person of high descent and ancient race. She is the only child of the late Prince Magas, who claimed to have the blood of the old Pharaohs in his veins, and who within this year was defeated and slain by my predecessor in office, the Emir Musa. The said Emir, having captured the lady, Heliodore, purposed to place her in his harem, as he had a right to do, seeing that she refused the blessings of the Faith. As it chanced, however, she escaped from him, as it is told by stabbing the eunuch in charge of her. At least it is certain that this eunuch was found dead, though by whom he was killed is notcertain. Now that she has been taken again, the lord Musa claims the woman as his spoil and demands that I should hand her over to him. Yet it seems to me that if she is the spoil of anyone, she belongs to the Emir governing Egypt at the date of her recapture. It was only by virtue of his office as Emir, and not by gift, purchase, or marriage contract, that the lord Musa came into possession of her, which possession was voided by her flight before she was added to his household and he acquired any natural rights over her in accordance with our law. Now for my part, I, as Emir, make no claim to this woman, holding it a hateful thing before God to force one into my household who has no wish to dwell there, especially when I know her to be married or affianced to another man. Still, as here also are involved high questions of law, I command that the lady, Heliodore, daughter of the late Prince Magas, shall also be conveyed with all courtesy and honour to the Caliph Harun at Baghdad, there to abide his judgment of her case. The matter is finished. Let the officers concerned carry out my decree and answer for the safety of these prisoners with their lives.”
“The matter is not finished,” shouted the ex-Emir Musa. “You, Obaidallah, have uttered this false judgment because your heart is black towards me whom you have displaced.”
“Then appeal against it,” said Obaidallah, “but know that if you attempt to lay hands upon this lady, my orders are that you be cut down as an enemy to the law. Patriarch of the Christians, you sail for Baghdad to visit the Caliph at his request in a ship that he has sent for you. Into your hands I give these prisoners under guard, knowing that you will deal well with them, who are of your false faith. To you also, who have the Caliph’s ear, Allah knows why, I will entrust letters making true report of all this matter. Let proper provision be made for the comfort of the General Olaf and of those with him. Musa, may your greetings at the Court of Baghdad be such as you deserve; meanwhile cease to trouble me.”
At the door of that hall I was separated from Heliodore and Martina and led to some house or prison, where I was given a large room with servants to wait upon me. Here I slept that night, and on the morrow I asked why we sailed for Beirut on our way to Baghdad. The chief of the servants answered that he did not know. During that day I was visited by Yusuf Islam, the officer who had captured us on board the Diana. He also told me that he did not know when we sailed, but certainly it would not be for some days. Further, he said that I need have no fear for Lady Heliodore and Maiden Martina, as they were well treated in some other place. Then he led me into a great garden, where he said I was at liberty to walk whenever I pleased.
Thus began perhaps the most dreadful time of waiting and suspense in all this life of mine, seeing that it was the longest. Every few days the officer Yusuf Islam would visit me and talk of many matters, for we became friends. Only of Heliodore and Martina he could or would tell me nothing, nor of when we were to set out on our journey to Baghdad. I asked to be allowed to speak with the Patriarch Politian, but he answered that this was impossible, as he had been called away from Alexandria for a little while. Nor could I have audience with the Emir Obaidallah, for he too had been called away.
Now my heart was filled with terrors, for I feared lest in this way or in that Heliodore had fallen into the hands of the accursed Musa. I prayed Yusuf Islam to tell me the truth of the matter, whereon he swore by the Prophet that she was safe, but would say no more. Nor did this comfort me much, since for aught I knew he might mean she was safe in death. I was aware, further, that the Moslems held it no crime to deceive an infidel. Week was added to week, and still I languished in this rich prison. The best of garments and food were brought to me; I was even given wine. Kind hands tended me and led me from place to place. I lacked nothing except freedom and the truth. Doubt and fear preyed upon my heart till at length I fell ill and scarcely cared to walk in the garden. One day when Yusuf Islam visited me I told him that he would not need to come many more times, since I felt that I was going to die.
“Do not die,” he answered, “since then perchance you will find you have done so in vain,” and he left me.
On the following evening he returned and told me that he had brought a physician to see me, a certain Mahommed, who was standing before me. Although I had no hope from any physician, I prayed this Mahommed to be seated, whereon Yusuf Islam left us, closing the door behind him.
“Be pleased to set out your case, General Olaf,” said Mahommed in a grave, quiet voice, “for know that I am sent by the Caliph himself to minister to you.”
“How can that be, seeing that he is in Baghdad?” I answered. Still, I told him my ailments.
When I had finished he said:
“I perceive that you suffer more from your mind than from your body. Be so good, now, as to repeat to me the tale of your life, of which I have already heard something. Tell me especially of those parts of it which have to do with the lady Heliodore, daughter of Magas, of your blinding by Irene for her sake, and of your discovery of her in Egypt, where you sought her disguised as a beggar.”
“Why should I tell you all my story, sir?”
“That I may know how to heal you of your sickness. Also, General Olaf, I will be frank with you. I am more than a mere physician; I have certain powers under the Caliph’s seal, and it will be wise on your part to open all your heart to me.”
Now I reflected that there could be little harm in repeating to this strange doctor what so many already knew. So I told him everything, and the tale was long.
“Wondrous! Most wondrous!” said the grave-voiced physician when I had finished. “Yet to me the strangest part of your history is that played therein by the lady Martina. Had she been your lover, now, one might have understood—perhaps,” and he paused.
“Sir Physician,” I answered, “the lady Martina has been and is no more than my friend.”
“Ah! Now I see new virtues in your religion, since we Moslems do not find such friends among those women who are neither our mothers nor our sisters. Evidently the Christian faith must have power to change the nature of women, which I thought to be impossible. Well, General Olaf, I will consider of your case, and I may tell you that I have good hopes of finding a medicine by which it can be cured, all save your sight, which in this world God Himself cannot give back to you. Now I have a favour to ask. I see that in this room of yours there is a curtain hiding the bed of the servant who sleeps with you. I desire to see another patient here, and that this patient should not see you. Of your goodness will you sit upon the bed behind that curtain, and will you swear to me on your honour as a soldier that whatever you may hear you will in no way reveal yourself?”
“Surely, that is if it is nothing which will bring disgrace upon my head or name.”
“It will be nothing to bring disgrace on your head or name, General Olaf, though perhaps it may bring some sorrow to your heart. As yet I cannot say.”
“My heart is too full of sorrow to hold more,” I answered.
Then he led me down to the guard’s bed, on which I sat myself down, being strangely interested in this play. He drew the curtain in front of me, and I heard him return to the centre of the room and clap his hands. Someone entered, saying,
“High Lord, your will?”
“Silence!” he exclaimed, and began to whisper orders, while I wondered what kind of a physician this might be who was addressed as “High Lord.”
The servant went, and, after a while of waiting that seemed long, once more the door was opened, and I heard the sweep of a woman’s dress upon the carpet.
“Be seated, Lady,” said the grave voice of the physician, “for I have words to say to you.”
“Sir, I obey,” answered another voice, at the sound of which my heart stood still. It was that of Heliodore.
“Lady,” went on the physician, “as my robe will tell you, I am a doctor of medicine. Also, as it chances, I am something more, namely, an envoy appointed by the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid, having full powers to deal with your case. Here are my credentials if you care to read them,” and I heard a crackling as of parchment being unfolded.
“Sir,” answered Heliodore, “I will read the letters later. For the present I accept your word. Only I would ask one question, if it pleases you to answer. Why have not I and the General Olaf been conveyed to the presence of the Caliph himself, as was commanded by the Emir Obaidallah?”
“Lady, because it was not convenient to the Caliph to receive you, since as it chances at present he is moving from place to place upon the business of the State. Therefore, as you will find in the writing, he has appointed me to deal with your matter. Now, Lady, the Caliph and I, his servant, know all your story from lips which even you would trust. You are betrothed to a certain enemy of his, a Northman named Olaf Red-Sword or Michael, who was blinded by the Empress Irene for some offence against her, but was afterwards appointed by her son Constantine to be governor of the Isle of Lesbos. This Olaf, by the will of God, inflicted a heavy defeat upon the forces of the Caliph which he had sent to take Lesbos. Then, by the goodness of God, he wandered to Egypt in search of you, with the result that both of you were taken prisoner. Lady, it will be clear to you that, having this wild hawk Olaf in his hands, the Caliph would scarcely let him go again to prey upon the Moslems, though whether he will kill him or make of him a slave as yet I do not know. Nay, hear me out before you speak. The Caliph has been told of your wondrous beauty, and as I see even less than the truth. Also he has heard of the high spirit which you showed in the Coptic rising, when your father, the Prince Magas, was slain, and of how you escaped out of the hand of the Emir Musa ‘the Fat’, and were not afraid to dwell for months alone in the tombs of the ancient dead. Now the Caliph, being moved in his heart by your sad plight and all that he has heard concerning you, commands me to make you an offer.
“The offer is that you should come to his Court, and there be instructed for a while by his learned men in the truths of religion. Then, if it pleases you to adopt Islam, he will take you as one of his wives, and if it does not please you, will add you to his harem, since it is not lawful for him to marry a woman who remains a Christian. In either case he will make on you a settlement of property to the value of that which belonged to your father, the Prince Magas. Reflect well before you answer. Your choice lies between the memory of a blind man, whom I think you will never see again, and the high place of one of the wives of the greatest sovereign of the earth.”
“Sir, before I answer I would put a question to you. Why do you say ‘the memory of a blind man’?”
“Because, Lady, a rumour has reached me which I desired to hold back from you, but which now you force me to repeat. It is that this General Olaf has in truth already passed the gate of death.”
“Then, sir,” she answered, with a little sob, “it behoves me to follow him through that gate.”
“That will happen when it pleases God. Meanwhile, what is your answer?”
“Sir, my answer is that I, a poor Christian prisoner, a victim of war and fate, thank the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid for the honours and the benefits he would shower on me, and with humility decline them.”
“So be it, Lady. The Caliph is not a man who would wish to force your inclination. Still, this being so, I am charged to say he bids you remember that you were taken prisoner in war by the Emir Musa. He holds that, subject to his own prior right, which he waives, you are the property of the Emir Musa under a just interpretation of the law. Yet he would be merciful as God is merciful, and therefore he gives you the choice of three things. The first of these is that you adopt Islam with a faithful heart and go free.”
“That I refuse, as I have refused it before,” said Heliodore.
“The second is,” he continued, “that you enter the harem of the Emir Musa.”
“That I refuse also.”
“And the third and last is that, having thrust aside his mercy, you suffer the common fate of a captured Christian who persists in error, and die.”
“That I accept,” said Heliodore.
“You accept death. In the splendour of your youth and beauty, you accept death,” he said, with a note of wonder in his voice. “Truly, you are great-hearted, and the Caliph will grieve when he learns his loss, as I do now. Yet I have my orders, for which my head must answer. Lady, if you die, it must be here and now. Do you still choose death?”
“Yes,” she said in a low voice.
“Behold this cup,” he went on, “and this draught which I pour into it,” and I heard the sound of liquid flowing. “Presently I shall ask you to drink of it, and then, after a little while, say the half of an hour, you will fall asleep, to wake in whatever world God has appointed to the idol worshippers of the Cross. You will suffer no pain and no fear; indeed, maybe the draught will bring you joy.”
“Then give it me,” said Heliodore faintly. “I will drink at once and have done.”
Then it was that I came out from behind my curtain and groped my way towards them.
“Sir Physician, or Sir Envoy of the Caliph Harun,” I said; but for the moment went no further, since, with a low cry, Heliodore cast herself upon my breast and stopped my lips with hers.
“Hush till I have spoken,” I whispered, placing my arm about her; then continued. “I swore to you just now that I would not reveal myself unless I heard aught which would bring disgrace on my head or name. To stand still behind yonder curtain while my betrothed is poisoned at your hands would bring disgrace upon my head and name so black that not all the seas of all the world could wash it away. Say, Physician, does yonder cup hold enough of death for both of us?”
“Yes, General Olaf, and if you choose to share it I think the Caliph will be glad, since he loves not the killing of brave men. Only it must be now and without more words. You can talk for a little afterwards before the sleep takes you.”
“So be it,” I said. “Since I must die, as I heard you decree but now, it is no crime to die thus, or at least I’ll risk it who have one to guard upon that road. Drink, beloved, a little less than half since I am the stronger. Then give me the cup.”
“Husband, I pledge you,” she said, and drank, thrusting the cup into my hand.
I, too, lifted it to my lips. Lo! it was empty.
“Oh! most cruel of thieves,” I cried, “you have stolen all.”
“Aye,” she answered. “Shall I see you swallow poison before my eyes? I die, but perchance God may save you yet.”
“Not so, Heliodore,” I cried again, and, turning, began to grope my way to the window, which I knew was far from the ground, since I had no weapon that would serve my turn.
In an instant, as I thrust the lattice open, I felt two strong arms cast about me and heard the physician exclaim,
“Come, Lady, help me with this madman, lest he do himself a mischief.”
She seized me also, and we struggled together all three of us. The doors burst open, and I was dragged back into the centre of the room.
“Olaf Red-Sword, the blind General of the Christians,” said the physician in a new voice, one that was full of majesty and command, “I who speak to you am no doctor of medicine and no envoy. I am Harun-al-Rashid, Caliph of the Faithful. Is it not so, my servants?”
“It is so, Caliph,” pealed the answer from many throats.
“Hearken, then, to the decree of Harun-al-Rashid. Learn both of you that all which has passed between us was but a play that I have played to test the love and faithfulness of you twain. Lady Heliodore, be at ease. You have drunk nothing save water distilled with roses, and no sleep shall fall on you save that which Nature brings to happiness. Lady, I tell you that, having seen what I have seen and heard what I have heard, rather would I stand in the place of that blind man tonight than be Sovereign of the East. Truly, I knew not that love such as yours was to be met with in the world. I say that when I saw you drain the cup in a last poor struggle to drive back the death that threatened this Olaf my own heart went out in love for you. Yet have no fear, since my love is of a kind that would not rob you of your love, but rather would bring it to a rich and glorious blossom in the sunshine of my favour. Wondrous is the tale of the wooing of you twain and happy shall be its end. General Olaf, you conquered me in war and dealt with those of my servants who fell into your hands according to the nobleness of your heart. Shall I, then, be outdone in generosity by one whom a while ago I should have named a Christian dog? Not so! Let the high priest of the Christians, Politian, be brought hither. He stands without, and with him the lady named Martina, who was the Empress Irene’s waiting-woman.”
The messengers went and there followed a silence. There are times when the heart is too full for words; at least, Heliodore and I found nothing to say to each other. We only clasped each other and waited.
At length the door opened, and I heard the eager, bustling step of Politian, also another gliding step, which I knew for that of Martina. She came to me, she kissed me on the brow, and whispered into my ear, “So all is well at last, as I knew it would be; and now, Olaf—and now, Olaf, you are about to be married. Yes, at once, and—I wish you joy.”
Her words were simple enough, yet they kindled in my heart a light by which it saw many things.
“Martina,” I said, “if I have lived to reach this hour, under God it is through you. Martina, they say that each of us has a guardian angel in heaven, and if that be so, mine has come to earth. Yet in heaven alone shall I learn to thank her as I ought.”
Then suddenly Martina was sobbing on my breast; after which I remember only that Heliodore helped me to wipe away her tears, while in the background I heard the Caliph say to himself in his deep voice,
“Wondrous! Wondrous! By Allah! these Christians are a strange folk. How far wiser is our law, for then he could have married both of them, and all three would have been happy. Truly he who decreed that it should be so knew the heart of man and woman and was a prophet sent by God. Nay, answer me not, friend Politian, since on matters of religion we have agreed that we will never argue. Do your office according to your unholy rites, and I and my servants will watch, praying that the Evil One may be absent from the service. Oh! Silence! Silence! Have I not said that we will not argue on subjects of religion? To your business, man.”
So Politian drew us together to the other end of the chamber, and there wed us as best he might, with Martina for witness and the solemn Moslems for congregation.
When it was over, Harun commanded my wife to lead me before him.
“Here is a marriage gift for you, General Olaf,” he said; “one, I think, that you will value more than any other,” and he handed me something sharp and heavy.
I felt it, hilt and blade, and knew it for the Wanderer’s sword, yes, my own red sword from which I took my name, that the Commander of the Faithful now restored to me, and with it my place and freedom. I took it, and, saying no word, with that same sword gave to him the triple salute due to a sovereign.
Instantly I heard Harun’s scimitar, the scimitar that was famous throughout the East, rattle as it left its scabbard, as did the scimitars of all those who attended on him, and knew that there was being returned to me the salute which a sovereign gives to a general in high command. Then the Caliph spoke again.
“A wedding gift to you, Lady Heliodore, child of an ancient and mighty race, and new-made wife of a gallant man. For the second time tonight take this cup of gold, but let that which lies within it adorn your breast in memory of Harun. Queens of old have worn those jewels, but never have they hung above a nobler heart.”
Heliodore took the cup, and in her trembling hand I heard the priceless gems that filled it clink against its sides. Once more the Caliph spoke.
“A gift for you also, Lady Martina. Take this ring from my hand and place it on your own. It seems a small thing, does it not? Yet something lies within its circle. In this city I saw today a very beauteous house built by one of your Grecian folk, and behind it lands that a swift horse could scarcely circle twice within an hour, most fruitful lands fed by the waters. That house and those lands are yours, together with rule over all who dwell upon them. There you may live content with whomever you may please, even if he be a Christian, free of tax or tribute, provided only that neither you nor he shall plot against my power. Now, to all three of you farewell, perchance forever, unless some of us should meet again in war. General Olaf, your ship lies in the harbour; use it when you will. I pray that you will think kindly of Harun-al-Rashid, as he does of you, Olaf Red-Sword. Come, let us leave these two. Lady Martina, I pray you to be my guest this night.”
So they all went, leaving Heliodore and myself alone in the great room, yes, alone at last and safe.
CHAPTER V: IRENE’S PRAYER
Years had gone by, I know not how many, but only that much had happened in them. For a while Irene and young Constantine were joint rulers of the Empire. Then they quarrelled again, and Constantine, afraid of treachery, fled with his friends in a ship after an attempt had been made to seize his person. He purposed to join his legions in Asia, or so it was said, and make war upon his mother. But those friends of his upon the ship were traitors, who, fearing Irene’s vengeance or perhaps his own, since she threatened to tell him all the truth concerning them, seized Constantine and delivered him up to Irene. She, the mother who bore him, caused him to be taken to the purple Porphyry Chamber in the palace, that chamber in which, as the first-born of an emperor, he saw the light, and there robbed him of light forever.
Yes, Stauracius and his butchers blinded Constantine as I had been blinded. Only it was told that they drove their hot irons deeper so that he died. But others say that he lived on, a prisoner, unknown, unheeded, as those uncles of his whom hehad blinded and who once were in my charge had lived, till in Greece the assassin’s daggers found their hearts. If so, oh! what a fate was his.
Afterwards for five years Irene reigned alone in glory, while Stauracius, my godfather, and his brother eunuch, Aetius, strove against each other to be first Minister of the Crown. Aetius won, and, not content with all he had, plotted that his relative Nicetas, who held the place of Captain of the Guard, which once I filled, should be named successor to the throne. Then at last the nobles rebelled, and, electing one of their number, Nicephorus, as emperor, seized Irene in her private house of Eleutherius, where she lay sick, and she crowned Emperor Nicephorus in Saint Sophia. Next day when he visited Irene, she, fearing the worst and broken by illness, bought a promise of safety by revealing to him all her hoarded treasure.
Thus fell Irene, the mighty Empress of the Earth!
Now during all these years Heliodore and I were left in peace at Lesbos. I was not deposed from my governorship of that isle, which prospered greatly under my rule. Even Irene’s estates, which Constantine had given me, were not taken away. At the appointed times I remitted the tribute due, yes, and added to the sum, and received back the official acknowledgment signed by the Empress, and with it the official thanks. But with these never came either letter or message. Yet it is evident she knew that I was married, for to Heliodore did come a message, and with it a gift. The gift was that necklace and those other ornaments which Irene had caused to be made in an exact likeness of the string of golden shells separated by emerald beetles, one half of which I had taken from the grave of the Wanderer at Aarhus and the other half of which was worn by Heliodore.
So much of the gift. The message was that she who owned the necklace might wish to have the rest of the set. To it were added the words that a certain general had been wrong when he prophesied that the wearing of this necklace by any woman save one would bring ill fortune to the wearer, since from the day it hung about Irene’s neck even that which seemed to be bad fortune had turned to good. Thus she had escaped “the most evil thing in the world, namely, another husband,” and had become the first woman in the world.
These words, which were written on a piece of sheepskin, sealed up, and addressed to the Lady Heliodore, but unsigned, I thought of the most evil omen, since boastfulness always seems to be hateful to the Power that decrees our fates. So, indeed, they proved to be.
On a certain day in early summer—it was the anniversary of my marriage in Egypt—Heliodore and I had dined with but two guests. Those guests were Jodd, the great Northman, my lieutenant, and his wife, Martina, for within a year of our return to Lesbos Jodd and Martina had married. It comes back to me that there was trouble about the business, but that when Jodd gave out that either she must marry him or that he would sail back to his northern land, bidding good-bye to us all forever, Martina gave way. I think that Heliodore managed the matter in some fashion of her own after the birth of our first-born son; how, I held it best never to inquire. At least, it was managed, and the marriage turned out well enough in the end, although at first Martina was moody at times and somewhat sharp of tongue with Jodd. Then they had a baby which died, and this dead child drew them closer together than it might have done had it lived. At any rate, from that time forward Martina grew more gentle with Jodd, and when other children were born they seemed happy together.
Well, we four had dined, and it comes to me that our talk turned upon the Caliph Harun and his wonderful goodness to us, whom as Christians he was bound to despise and hate. Heliodore told me then for the first time how she was glad he had made it clear so soon that what she drank from the gold cup which now stood upon our table was no more than rose water.
So strong is the working of the mind that already she had begun to feel as though poison were numbing her heart and clouding her brain, and was sure that soon she would have fallen into the sleep which Harun had warned her would end in death.
“Had he been a true physician, he would have known that this might be so, and that such grim jests are very dangerous,” I said. Then I added, for I did not wish to dwell longer upon a scene the memory of which was dreadful to me, although it had ended well, “Tell us, Martina, is it true that those rich possessions of yours in Alexandria which the Caliph gave you are sold?”
“Yes, Olaf,” she answered, “to a company of Greek merchants, and not so ill. The contract was signed but yesterday. It was my wish that we should leave Lesbos and go to live in this place, as we might have done with safety under Harun’s signed firman, but Jodd here refused.”
“Aye,” said Jodd in his big voice. “Am I one to dwell among Moslems and make money out of trade and gardens in however fine a house? Why, I should have been fighting with these prophet-worshippers within a month, and had my throat cut. Moreover, how could I bear to be separated from my general, and whatever she may think, how could Martina bear to lose sight of her godson? Why, Olaf, I tell you that, although you are married and she is married, she still thinks twice as much of you as she does of me. Oh! Blind man’s dog once, blind man’s dog always! Look not so angry, Martina. Why, I wonder, does the truth always make women angry?” and he burst into one of his great laughs.
At this moment Heliodore rose from the table and walked to the open window to speak to our children and Martina’s, a merry company who were playing together in the garden. Here she stood a while studying the beautiful view of the bay beneath; then of a sudden called out, “A ship! A ship sailing into the harbour, and it flies the Imperial standard.”
“Then pray God she brings no bad news,” I said, who feared that Imperial standard and felt that we had all been somewhat too happy of late. Moreover, I knew that no royal ship was looked for from Constantinople at this time, and dreaded lest this one should bear letters from the new Emperor dismissing me from my office, or even worse tidings.
“What bad news should she bring?” growled Jodd. “Oh! I know what is in your mind, General, but if this upstart Nicephorus is wise, he’ll leave you alone, since Lesbos does not want another governor, and will tell him so if there be need. Yes, it will take more than one ship of war, aye, and more than three, to set up another governor in Lesbos. Nay, rebuke me not, General, for I at least have sworn no oath of homage to this Nicephorus, nor have the other Northmen or the men of Lesbos.”
“You are like a watchdog, Jodd, barking at you know not what, just because it is strange. Go now, I pray you, to the quay, and bring back to us news of this ship.”
So he went, and for the next two hours or more I sat in my private room dictating letters to Heliodore on matters connected with the duties of my office. The work came to an end at last, and I was preparing to take my evening ride on a led mule when Martina entered the room.
“Do you ride with us to-night, Martina?” I asked, recognising her step.
“No, Olaf,” she said quickly, “nor I think can you. Here are letters for you from Constantinople. Jodd has brought them from the ship.”
“Where is Jodd?” I said.
“Without, in the company of the captain of the ship, some guards, and a prisoner.”
“Perchance the letters will tell you,” she replied evasively. “Have I your command to open and read? They are marked ‘Most Secret’.”
I nodded, since Martina often acted as my secretary in high matters, being from her training skilled in such things. So she broke the seals and read to myself and to Heliodore, who also was present in the room, as follows:
“‘To the Excellent Michael, a General of our armies and Governor of the Isle of Lesbos, Greetings from Nicephorus, by the will of God, Emperor.
“‘Know, O Michael, that we, the Emperor, reposing especial faith in you our trusted servant, with these letters deliver into your keeping a certain prisoner of State. This prisoner is none other than Irene, who aforetime was Empress.
“‘Because of her many wickednesses in the sight of God and man we by the decree of the People, of the Army, of the Senate and of the high Officers of State amidst general rejoicing deposed the said Irene, widow of the Emperor Leo and mother of the late Emperor Constantine, and placed ourselves upon the throne. The said Irene, at her own request, we consigned to the place called the Island of Princes, setting her in charge of certain holy monks. Whilst there, abusing our mercy and confidence, she set on foot plots to murder our Person and repossess herself of the throne.
“‘Now our Councillors with one voice urged that she should be put to death in punishment of her crimes, but we, being mindful of the teaching of our Lord and Saviour and of His saying that we should turn the other cheek to those who smite us, out of our gentle pity have taken another counsel.
“‘Learn now, most excellent Michael the Blind, who once were known as Olaf Red-Sword, that we hand over to your keeping the person of Irene, aforetime Empress, charging you to deal with her as she dealt with you and as she dealt also with the late Emperor Constantine, the son of her body, for thus shall her evil plottings be brought to naught.’”
“By God’s Name, he means that I must blind her!” I exclaimed.
Making no answer, Martina went on with the letter——
“‘Should the said Irene survive her just punishment, we command you to make sufficient provision for her daily wants, but no more, and to charge the same against the sum due Us from the revenues of Lesbos. Should she die at once, or at any future time, give to her decent private burial, and report to Us the circumstances of her death duly attested.
“‘Keep these Presents secret and do not act upon them until the ship which brings them and the prisoner to you has sailed for Constantinople, which it is ordered to do as soon as it has been revictualled. On your head be it to carry out these our commands, for which you shall answer with your life and those of your wife and children. This signed and sealed at our Court of Constantinople on the twelfth day of the sixth month of the first year of our reign, and countersigned by the high officers whose names appear beneath.’”
Such was this awful letter that, having read, Martina thrust into my hand as though she would be rid of it. Then followed a silence, which at length Martina broke.
“Your commands, Excellency,” she said in a dry voice. “I understand that the—the—prisoner is in the ante-room in charge of the Captain Jodd.”
“Then let her remain in the charge of the Captain Jodd,” I exclaimed angrily, “and in your charge, Martina, who are accustomed to attending upon her, and know that you are both answerable for her safety with your lives. Send the captain of the ship to me and prepare a discharge for him. I will not see this woman till he has sailed, since until then I am commanded to keep all secret. Send also the head officer of the guard.”
Three days went by. The Imperial ship had sailed, taking with her my formal acknowledgment of the Emperor’s letter, and the time had come when once more I must meet Irene face to face.
I sat in the audience chamber of my Great House, and there was present with me only Jodd, my lieutenant in office. Being blind, I dared not receive a desperate woman alone, fearing lest she might stab me or do herself some mischief. At the door of the chamber Jodd took her from the guards, whom he bade remain within call, and conducted her to where I sat. He told me afterwards that she was dressed as a nun, a white hood half hiding her still beautiful face and a silver crucifix hanging upon her breast.
As I heard her come I rose and bowed to her, and my first words to her were to pray her to be seated.
“Nay,” she answered in that rich, well-remembered voice of hers, “a prisoner stands before the judge. I greet you, General Olaf, I pray your pardon—Michael—after long years of separation. You have changed but little, and I rejoice to see that your health is good and that the rank and prosperity which I gave have not been taken from you.”
“I greet you, Madam,” (almost had I said Augusta), I answered, then continued hurriedly: “Lady Irene, I have received certain commands concerning you from the Emperor Nicephorus which it is best that you should hear, so that you shall hold me quit of blame in aught that it may be my duty to inflict upon you. Read them, Captain Jodd. Nay, I forgot, you cannot. Give the copy of the letter to the Lady Irene; the original she can see afterwards if she wills.”
So the paper was given to her by Jodd, and she read it aloud, weighing each word carefully.
“Oh, what a dog is this!” she said when it was finished. “Know, Olaf, that of my free will I surrendered the throne to him, yes, and all my private treasure, he swearing upon the Gospels that I should live in peace and honour till my life’s end. And now he sends me to you to be blinded and then done to death, for that is what he means. Oh! may God avenge me upon him! May he become a byword and a scorn, and may his own end be even worse than that which he has prepared for me. May shame wrap his memory as in a garment, may his bones be dishonoured and his burying-place forgotten. Aye, and so it shall be.” And Olaf did not doubt that it would be so, so vehemently she had put a curse upon the Emperor.
She paused in her fearful curse, then said in a new voice, that voice in which she was wont to plead, “You will not blind me, Olaf. You’ll not take from me my last blessing, the light of day. Think what it means——”
“The General Olaf should know well enough,” interrupted Jodd, but I waved him to be silent, and answered, “Tell me, Madam, how can I do otherwise? It seems to me that my life and that of my wife and children hang upon this deed. Moreover, why should I do otherwise now that by God’s justice the wheel has come round at last?” I added, pointing to the sightless white corneas of my eyes.
“Oh! Olaf,” she said, “if I harmed you, you know well it was because I loved you.”
“Then God send that no woman ever loves me in such a fashion,” broke in Jodd.
“Olaf,” she continued, taking no note of him, “once you went very near to loving me also, on that night when you would have eaten the poisoned figs to save my son, the Emperor. At least, you kissed me. If you forget, I cannot. Olaf, can you blind a woman whom you have kissed?”
“Kissing takes two, and I know that you blinded him,” muttered Jodd, “for I crucified the brutes you commanded to do the deed to which they confessed.”
“Olaf, I admit that I treated you ill; I admit that I would have killed you; but, believe me, it was jealousy and naught but jealousy which drove me on. Almost as soon would I have killed myself; indeed, I thought of it.”
“And there the matter ended,” said Jodd. “It was Olaf who walked the Hall of the Pit, not you. We found him on the brink of the hole.”
“Olaf, after I regained my power——”
“By blinding your own son,” said Jodd, “for which you will have an account to settle one day.”
“——I dealt well with you. Knowing that you had married my rival, for I kept myself informed of all you did, still I lifted no hand against you——”
“What good was a maimed man to you when you were courting the Emperor Charlemagne?” asked Jodd.
Now at last she turned on him, saying, “Well is it for you, Barbarian, that if only for a while Fate has bereft power from my hands. Oh! This is the bitterest drop in all my cup, that I who for a score of years ruled the world must live to suffer the insults of such as you.”
“Then why not die and have done?” asked the imperturbable Jodd. “Or, if you lack the courage, why not submit to the decree of the Emperor, as so many have submitted to your decree, instead of troubling the general here with prayers for mercy? It would serve as well.”
“Jodd,” I said, “I command you to be silent. This lady is in trouble; attack those in power, if you will, not those who have fallen.”
“There speaks the man I loved,” said Irene. “What perverse fate kept us apart, Olaf? Had you taken what I offered, by now you and I would have ruled the world.”
“Perhaps, Madam; yet it is right I should say that I do not regret my choice, although because of it I can no longer—look upon the world.”
“I know, I know! She of that accursed necklace, which I see you still wear, came between us and spoiled everything. Now I’m ruined for lack of you and you are nobody for lack of me, a soldier who will run his petty course and depart into the universal darkness, leaving naught a name behind him. In the ages to be what man will take count of one of a score of governors of the little Isle of Lesbos, who might yet have held the earth in the hollow of his hand and shone a second Caesar in its annals? Oh! what marplot of a devil rules our destinies? He who fashioned those golden shells upon your breast, or so I think. Well, well, it is so and cannot be altered. The Augusta of the Empire of the East must plead with the man who rejected her, for sight, or rather for her life. You understand, do you not, Olaf, that letter is a command to you to murder me?”
“Just such a command as you gave to those who blinded your son Constantine,” muttered Jodd beneath his breath.
“That is what is meant. You are to murder me, and, Olaf, I’m not fit to die. Great place brings great temptations, and I admit that I have greatly sinned; I need time upon the earth to make my peace with Heaven, and if you slay my body now, you will slay my soul as well. Oh! Be pitiful! Be pitiful! Olaf, you cannot kill the woman who has lain upon your breast, it is against nature. If you did such a thing you’d never sleep again; you would shudder yourself over the edge of the world! Being what you are, no pomp or power would ever pay you for the deed. Be true to your own high heart and spare me. See, I who for so long was the ruler of many kingdoms, kneel to you and pray you to spare me,” and, casting herself down upon her knees, she laid her head upon my feet and wept.
All that scene comes back to me with a strange and terrible vividness, although I had no sight to aid me in its details, save the sight of my soul. I remember that the wonder and horror of it pierced me through and through; the stab of the hot iron before my eyes was not more sharp. There was I, Olaf, a mere gentleman of the North, seated in my chair of office, and there before me, her mighty head bowed upon my feet, knelt the Empress of the Earth pleading for her life. In truth all history could show few stranger scenes. What was I to do? If I yielded to her piteous prayers, it was probable that my own life and those of my wife and children would pay the price. Yet how could I clap my hands in their Eastern fashion and summon the executioners to pierce those streaming eyes of hers? “Rise, Augusta,” I said, for in this extremity of her shame I gave her back her title, “and tell me, you who are accustomed to such matters, how I can spare you who deal with the lives of others as well as with my own?”
“I thank you for that name,” she said as she struggled to her feet. “I’ve heard it shouted by tens of thousands in the circus and from the throats of armies, but never yet has it been half so sweet to me as now from lips that have no need to utter it. In times bygone I’d have paid you for this service with a province, but now Irene is so poor that, like some humble beggar-woman, she can but give her thanks. Still, repeat it no more, for next time it will sound bitter. What did you ask? How you could save me, was it not? Well, the thing seems simple. In all that letter from Nicephorus there is no direct command that you should blind me. The fellow says that you are to treat me as I treated you, and as I treated Constantine, the Emperor—because I must. Well, I imprisoned both of you. Imprison me and you fulfil the mandate. He says that if I die you are to report it, which shows that he does not mean that I mustdie. Oh! the road of escape is easy, should you desire to travel it. If you do not so desire, then, Olaf, I pray you as a last favour not to hand me over to common men. I see that by your side still hangs that red sword of yours wherewith once I threatened you when you refused me at Constantinople. Draw it, Olaf, and this time I’ll guide its edge across my throat. So you will please Nicephorus and win the rewards that Irene can no longer give. Baptised in her blood, what earthly glory is there to which you might not yet attain, you who had dared to lay hands upon the anointed flesh that even her worst foes have feared to touch lest God’s sudden curse should strike them dead?”
So she went on pouring out words with the strange eloquence that she could command at times, till I grew bewildered. She who had lived in light and luxury, who had loved the vision of all bright and glorious things, was pleading for her sight to the man whom she had robbed of sight that he might never more behold the young beauty of her rival. She who had imagination to know the greatness of her sins was pleading to be spared the death she dared not face. She was pleading to me, who for years had been her faithful soldier, the captain of her own guard, sworn to protect her from the slightest ill, me upon whom, for a while, it had pleased her to lavish the wild passion of her imperial heart, who once had almost loved—who, indeed, had kissed her on the lips.
My orders were definite. I was commanded to blind this woman and to kill her in the blinding, which, in truth, I who had power of life and death, I who ruled over this island like a king by virtue of the royal commission, could do without question asked. If I failedto fulfil those orders, I must be prepared to pay the price, as if I did fulfil them I might expect a high reward, probably the governorship of some great province of the Empire. This was no common prisoner. She was the ex-Empress, a mighty woman to whom tens of thousands or perhaps millions still looked for help and leadership. It was necessary to those who had seized her place and power that she should be rendered incapable of rule. It was desirable to them that she should die. Yet so delicately were the scales poised between them and the adherents of Irene, among whom were numbered all the great princes of the Church, that they themselves did not dare to inflict mutilation or death upon her. They feared lest it should be followed by a storm of wrath that would shake Nicephorus from his throne and involve them in his ruin.
So they sent her to me, the governor of a distant dependency, the man whom they knew she had wickedly wronged, being certain that her tongue, which it was said could turn the hearts of all men, would never soften mine. Then afterwards they would declare that the warrant was a forgery, that I had but wreaked a private vengeance upon an ancient foe, and, to still the scandal, degrade me from my governorship—into some place of greater power and profit.
Oh! while Irene pleaded before me and, heedless of the presence of Jodd, even cast her arms about me and laid her head upon my breast, all these things passed through my mind. In its scales I weighed the matter out, and the beam rose against me, for I knew well that if I spared Irene I condemned myself and those who were more to me than myself, my wife, my children, and all the Northmen who clung to me, and who would not see me die without blow struck. I understood it all, and, understanding, of a sudden made up my mind—to spare Irene. Come what might, I would be no butcher; I would follow my heart whithersoever it might lead me.
“Cease, Madam,” I said. “I have decided. Jodd, bid the messenger summon hither Heliodore and Martina, my wife and yours.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Irene, “if these women are to be called in counsel on my case all is finished, seeing that both of them love you and are my enemies. Moreover, I have some pride left. To you I could plead, but not to them, though they blind me with their bodkins after they have stabbed me with their tongues. Excellency, a last boon! Call in your guard and kill me.”
“Madam, I said that I had decided, and all the women in the world will not change my mind in this way or in that. Jodd, do my bidding.”
Jodd struck a bell, once only, which was the signal for the messenger. He came and received his orders. Then followed a pause, since Heliodore and Martina were in a place close by and must be sent for. During this time Irene began to talk to me of sundry general matters. She compared the view that might be seen from this house in Lesbos to that from the terrace of her palace on the Bosporus, and described its differences to me. She asked me as to the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid, whom she understood I had seen, inquiring as to the estimate I had formed of his character. Lastly, with a laugh, she dwelt upon the strange vicissitudes of life.
“Look at me,” she said. “I began my days as the daughter of a Greek gentleman, with no dower save my wit and beauty. Then I rose to be a ruler of the world, and knew all that it has to give of pomp and power. Nations trembled at my nod; at my smile men grew great; at my frown they faded into nothingness. Save you, Olaf, none ever really conquered me, until I fell in the appointed hour. And now! Of this splendour there is left but a nun’s robe; of this countless wealth but one silver crucifix; of this power—naught.”
So she spoke on, still not knowing to what decision I had come; whether she were to be blinded or to live or die. To myself I thought it was a proof of her greatness that she could thus turn her mind to such things while Fate hovered over her, its hand upon a sword. But it may be that she thought thus to impress me and to enmesh me in memories which would tie my hands, or even from the character of my answers to draw some augury of her doom.
The women came at length. Heliodore entered first, and to her Irene bowed.
“Greetings, Lady of Egypt,” she said. “Ah! had you taken my counsel in the past, that title might have been yours in very truth, and there you and your husband could have founded a new line of kings independent of the Empire which totters to its fall.”
“I remember no such counsel, Madam,” said Heliodore. “It seems to me that the course I took was right and one pleasing to God, since it has given me my husband for myself, although, it is true, wickedly robbed of his eyes.”
“For yourself! Can you say so while Martina is always at his side?” she asked in a musing voice. “Well, it may be, for in this world strange things happen.”
She paused, and I heard both Heliodore and Jodd move as though in anger, for her bitter shaft had gone home. Then she went on softly, “Lady, may I tell you that, in my judgment, your beauty is even greater than it was, though it is true it has grown from bud to flower. Few bear their years and a mother’s burdens so lightly in these hot lands.”
Heliodore did not answer, for at that moment Martina entered. Seeing Irene for the first time, she forgot everything that had passed and curtseyed to her in the old fashion, murmuring the familiar words, “Thy servant greets thee, Augusta.”
“Nay, use not that title, Martina, to one who has done with the world and its vanities. Call me ‘Mother’ if you will, for that is the only name of honour by which those of my religious order may be known. In truth, as your mother in God, I welcome you and bless you, from my heart forgiving you those ills which you have worked against me, being, as I know well, driven by a love that is greater than any woman bears to woman. But that eating fire of passion scorned is the heritage of both of us, and of it we will talk afterwards. I must not waste the time of the General Olaf, whom destiny, in return for many griefs, has appointed to be my jailer. Oh! Olaf,” she added with a little laugh, “some foresight of the future must have taught me to train you for the post. Let us then be silent, ladies, and listen to the judgment which this jailer of mine is about to pass upon me. Do you know it is no less than whether these eyes of mine, which you were wont to praise, Martina, which in his lighter moments even this stern Olaf was wont to praise, should be torn from beneath my brow, and if so, whether it should be done in such a fashion that I die of the deed? That and no less is the matter which his lips must settle. Now speak, Excellency.”
“Madam,” I said slowly, “to the best of my wit I have considered the letter sent to me under the seal and sign of the Emperor Nicephorus. Although it might be so interpreted by some, I cannot find in that letter any direct command that I should cause you to be blinded, but only one that I should keep you under strict guard, giving you such things as are necessary to your sustenance. This then I shall do, and by the first ship make report of my action to the Emperor at Constantinople.”
Now, when she heard these words, at length the proud spirit of Irene broke.
“God reward you, for I cannot, Olaf,” she cried. “God reward you, saint among men, who can pay back cruel injuries with the gentlest mercy.”
So saying, she burst into tears and fell senseless to the ground.
Martina ran to aid her, but Heliodore turned to me and said in her tender voice, “This is worthy of you, Olaf, and I would not have you do otherwise. Yet, husband, I fear that this pity of yours has signed the death-warrant of us all.”
So it proved to be, though, as it chanced, that warrant was never executed. I made my report to Constantinople, and in course of time the answer came in a letter from the Emperor. This letter coldly approved of my act in set and formal phrases. It added that the truth had been conveyed publicly to those slanderers of the Emperor who announced that he had caused Irene to be first blinded and then put to death in Lesbos, whereby their evil tongues had been silenced.
Then came this pregnant sentence:
“We command you, with your wife and children and your lieutenant, the Captain Jodd, with his wife and children, to lay down your offices and report yourselves with all speed to Us at our Court of Constantinople, that we may confer with you on certain matters. If it is not convenient to you, or you can find no fitting ship in which to sail at once, know that within a month of your receipt of this letter our fleet will call at Lesbos and bring you and the others herein mentioned to our Presence.”
“That is a death sentence,” said Martina, when she had finished reading out this passage. “I have seen several such sent in my day, when I was Irene’s confidential lady. It is the common form. We shall never reach Constantinople, Olaf, or, if we do, we shall never leave it more.”
I nodded, for I knew that this was so. Then, at some whispered word from Martina, Heliodore spoke.
“Husband,” she said, “foreseeing this issue, Martina, Jodd, and most of the Northmen and I have made a plan which we now submit to you, praying that for our sakes, if not for yours, you will not thrust it aside. We have bought two good ships, armed them and furnished them with all things needful. Moreover, during the past two months we have sold much of our property, turning it into gold. This is our plan—that we pretend to obey the order of the Emperor, but instead of heading for Constantinople, sail away north to the land in which you were born, where, having rank and possessions, you may still become a mighty chief. If we go at once we shall miss the Imperial fleet, and I think that none will follow us.”
Now I bowed my head for a while and thought. Then I lifted it and said, “So let it be. No other road is open.”
For my own sake I would not have stirred an inch. I would have gone to the Court of the Emperor at Constantinople and there argued out the thing in a gambler’s spirit, prepared to win or prepared to lose. There at least I should have had all the image-worshippers who adored Irene, that is, the full half of the Empire, upon my side, and if I perished, I should perish as a saint. But a wife and children are the most terrible gifts of God, if the most blessed, for they turn our hearts to water. So, for the first time in my life, I grew afraid, and, for their sakes, fled.
As might be expected, having Martina’s brains, Heliodore’s love, and the Northmen’s loyalty at the back of it, our plan went well. A letter was sent to the Emperor saying that we would await the arrival of the fleet to obey his commands, having some private matters to arrange before we left Lesbos. Then, on a certain evening, we embarked on two great ships, about four hundred souls in all.
Before we went I bade farewell to Irene. She was seated outside the house that had been given to her, employed in spinning, for it was her fancy to earn the bread she ate by the labour of her hands. Round her were playing Jodd’s children and my own, whom, in order to escape suspicion, we had sent thither till the time came for us to embark, since the people of Lesbos only knew of our scheme by rumour.
“Whither do you go, Olaf?” she asked.
“Back to the North, whence I came, Madam,” I answered, “to save the lives of these,” and I waved my hand towards the children. “If I bide here all must die. We have been sent for to Constantinople, as I think you were wont to send for officers who had ceased to please you.”
“I understand, Olaf; moreover, I know it is I who have brought this trouble upon you because you spared me, whom it was meant that you should kill. Also I know, through friends of mine, that henceforth, for reasons of policy, my little end of life is safe, and perhaps with it my sight. All this I owe to you, though now at times I regret that I asked the boon. From the lot of an Empress to that of a spinning-wife is a great change, and one which I find hard to bear. Still, I have my peace to make with God, and towards that peace I strive. Yet will you not take me with you, Olaf? I should like to found a nunnery in that cold North of yours.”
“No, Augusta. I have done my best by you, and now you must guard yourself. We part forever. I go hence to finish where I began. My birthplace calls me.”
“Forever is a long word, Olaf. Are you sure that we part forever? Perchance we shall meet again in death or in other lives. Such, at least, was the belief of some of the wisest of my people before we became Christian, and mayhap the Christians do not know everything, since the world had learnt much before they came. I hope that it may be so, Olaf, for I owe you a great debt and would repay it to you full measure, pressed down and running over. Farewell. Take with you the blessing of a sinful and broken heart,” and, rising, she kissed me on the brow.
Here ends the story of this life of mine as Olaf Red-Sword, since of it I can recover no more. The darkness drops. Of what befell me and the others after my parting with Irene I know nothing or very little. Doubtless we sailed away north, and, I think, came safely to Aarhus, since I have faint visions of Iduna ‘the Fair’ grown old, but still unwed, for the stain of Steinar’s blood, as it were, still marked her brow in all men’s eyes; and even of Freydisa, white-haired and noble-looking. How did we meet and how did we separate at last, I wonder? And what were the fates of Heliodore and of our children; of Martina and of Jodd? Also, was the prophecy of Odin, spoken through the lips of Freydisa in the temple at Aarhus, that he and his fellow gods, or demons, would prevail against my flesh and that of those who clung to me, fulfilled at last in the fires of martyrdom for the Faith, as his promise of my happiness was fulfilled?
I cannot tell. I cannot tell. Darkness entombs us all and history is dumb.
At Aarhus there are many graves! Standing among them, not so long ago, much of this history came back to me.
*** END OF THE WANDERERS OF ODIN ***
Post Script: Empress Irene died a year after placing her curse upon Nicephorus, in 803 AD. Eight years later, the skull of Emperor Nicephorus was said to have been used as a drinking cup by his victorious enemy, King Krum of the Balkan Bulgars after the Battle of Pliska. Perhaps Olaf Thorvaldson was wise to spare Empress Irene and not invoke a like curse upon himself.