IN ONE of a series of chambers excavated in the mountains, yet connected with the more artificial portion of the palace, chambers and galleries which in the course of ages had served for many purposes, sometimes of security, sometimes of punishment; treasuries not unfrequently, and occasionally prisons; in one of these vast cells, feebly illumined from apertures above, lying on a rude couch with her countenance hidden, motionless and miserable, was the beautiful daughter of Besso, one who had been bred in all the delights of the most refined luxury, and in the enjoyment of a freedom not common in any land, and most rare among the Easterns.
The events of her life had been so strange and rapid during the last few days that, even amid her woe, she revolved in her mind their startling import. It was little more than ten days since, under the guardianship of her father, she had commenced her journey from Damascus to Aleppo. When they had proceeded about half way, they were met at the city of Horns by a detachment of Turkish soldiers, sent by the Pasha of Aleppo, at the request of Hillel Besso, to escort them, the country being much troubled in consequence of the feud with the Ansarey. Notwithstanding these precautions, and although, from the advices they received, they took a circuitous and unexpected course, they were attacked by the mountaineers within half a day’s journey of Aleppo; and with so much strength and spirit, that their guards, after some resistance, fled and dispersed, while Eva and her attendants, after seeing her father cut down in her defence, was carried a prisoner to Gindarics.
Overwhelmed by the fate of her father, she was at first insensible to her own, and was indeed so distracted that she delivered herself up to despair. She was beginning in some degree to collect her senses, and to survey her position with some comparative calmness, when she learnt from the visit of Cypros that Fakredeen and Tancred were, by a strange coincidence, under the same roof as herself. Then she recalled the kind sympathy and offers of consolation that had been evinced and proffered to her by the mistress of the castle, to whose expressions at the time she had paid but an imperfect attention. Under these circumstances she earnestly requested permission to avail herself of a privilege, which had been previously offered and refused, to become the companion, rather than the captive, of the Queen of the Ansarey; so that she might find some opportunity of communicating with her two friends, of inquiring about her father, and of consulting with them as to the best steps to be adopted in her present exigency.
The interview, from which so much was anticipated, had turned out as strange and as distressful as any of the recent incidents to which it was to have brought balm and solace. Recognised instantly by Tancred and the young Emir, and greeted with a tender respect, almost equal to the surprise and sorrow which they felt at beholding her, Astarte, hitherto so unexpectedly gracious to her captive, appeared suddenly agitated, excited, haughty, even hostile. The Queen had immediately summoned Fakredeen to her side, and there passed between them some hurried and perturbed explanations; subsequently she addressed some inquiries to Tancred, to which he replied without reserve. Soon afterwards, Astarte, remaining intent and moody, the court was suddenly broken up; Keferinis signifying to the young men that they should retire, while Astarte, without bestowing on them her usual farewell, rose, and, followed by her maidens, quitted the chamber. As for Eva, instead of returning to one of the royal apartments which had been previously allotted to her, she was conducted to what was in fact a prison.
There she had passed the night and a portion of the ensuing day, visited only by Cypros, who, when Eva would have inquired the cause of all this mysterious cruelty and startling contrast to the dispositions which had preceded it, only shook her head and pressed her finger to her lip, to signify the impossibility of her conversing with her captive.
It was one of those situations where the most gifted are deserted by their intelligence; where there is as little to guide as to console; where the mystery is as vast as the misfortune; and the tortured apprehension finds it impossible to grapple with irresistible circumstances.
In this state, the daughter of Besso, plunged in a dark reverie, in which the only object visible to her mind’s eye was the last glance of her dying father, was roused from her approaching stupor by a sound, distinct, yet muffled, as if some one wished to attract her attention, without startling her by too sudden an interruption. She looked up; again she heard the sound, and then, in a whispered tone, her name ——
‘I am here.’
‘Hush!’ said a figure, stealing into the caverned chamber, and then throwing off his Syrian cloak, revealing to her one whom she recognised.
‘Fakredeen,’ she said, starting from her couch, ‘what is all this?’
The countenance of Fakredeen was distressed and agitated; there was an expression of alarm, almost of terror, stamped upon his features.
‘You must follow me,’ he said; ‘there is not a moment to lose; you must fly!’
‘Why and whither?’ said Eva. ‘This capture is one of plunder not of malice, or was so a few hours back. It is not sorrow for myself that overwhelmed me. But yesterday, the sovereign of these mountains treated me with a generous sympathy, and, if it brought me no solace, it was only because events have borne, I fear, irremediable woe. And now I suddenly find myself among my friends; friends, who, of all others, I should most have wished to encounter at this moment, and all is changed. I am a prisoner, under every circumstance of harshness, even of cruelty, and you speak to me as if my life, my immediate existence, was in peril.’
Fakredeen wrung his hands, and murmured, ‘Let us go.’
‘I scarcely care to live,’ said Eva; ‘and I will not move until you give me some clue to all this mystery.’
‘Well, then, she is jealous of you; the Queen, Astarte; she is jealous of you with the English prince, that man who has brought us all so many vexations.’ ‘Is it he that has brought us so many vexations?’ replied Eva. ‘The Queen jealous of me, and with the English prince! ’Tis very strange. We scarcely exchanged a dozen sentences together, when all was disturbed and broken up. Jealous of me! Why, then, was she anxious that I should descend to her divan? This is not the truth, Fakredeen.’
‘Not all; but it is the truth; it is, indeed. The Queen is jealous of you: she is in love with Tancred; a curse be on him and her both! and somebody has told her that Tancred is in love with you.’ ‘Somebody! When did they tell her?’ ‘Long ago; long ago. She knew, that is, she had been told, that Tancred was affianced to the daughter of Besso of Damascus; and so this sudden meeting brought about a crisis. I did what I could to prevent it; vowed that you were only the cousin of the Besso that she meant; did everything, in short, I could to serve and save you; but it was of no use. She was wild, is wild, and your life is in peril.’
Eva mused a moment. Then, looking up, she said, ‘Fakredeen, it is you who told the Queen this story. You are the somebody who has invented this fatal falsehood. What was your object I care not to inquire, knowing full well, that, if you had an object, you never would spare friend or foe. Leave me. I have little wish to live; but I believe in the power of truth. I will confront the Queen and tell her all. She will credit what I say; if she do not, I can meet my fate; but I will not, now or ever, entrust it to you.’
Thereupon Fakredeen burst into a flood of passionate tears, and, throwing himself on the ground, kissed Eva’s feet, and clung to her garments which he embraced, sobbing, and moaning, and bestowing on her endless phrases of affection, mixed with imprecations on his own head and conduct.
‘O Eva! my beloved Eva, sister of my soul, it is of no use telling you any lies! Yes, I am that villain and that idiot who has brought about all this misery, misery enough to turn me mad, and which, by a just retribution, has destroyed all the brilliant fortunes which were at last opening on me. This Frank stranger was the only bar to my union with the sovereign of these mountains, whose beauty you have witnessed, whose power, combined with my own, would found a kingdom. I wished to marry her. You cannot be angry with me, Eva, for that. You know very well that, if you had married me yourself, we should neither of us have been in the horrible situation in which we now find ourselves. Ah! that would have been a happy union! But let that pass. I have always been the most unfortunate of men; I have never had justice done me. Well, she loved this prince of Franguestan. I saw it; nothing escapes me. I let her know that he was devoted to another. Why I mentioned your name I cannot well say; perhaps because it was the first that occurred to me; perhaps because I have a lurking suspicion that he really does love you. The information worked.
My own suit prospered. I bribed her minister. He is devoted to me. All was smiling. How could I possibly have anticipated that you would ever arrive here! When I saw you, I felt that all was lost. I endeavoured to rally affairs, but it was useless. Tan-cred has no finesse; his replies neutralised, nay, destroyed, all my counter representations. The Queen is a whirlwind. She is young; she has never been crossed in her life. You cannot argue with her when her heart is touched. In short, all is ruined;’ and Fakredeen hid his weeping face in the robes of Eva. ‘What misery you prepare for yourself, and for all who know you!’ exclaimed Eva. ‘But that has happened which makes me insensible to further grief.’
‘Yes; but listen to what I say, and all will go right. I do not care in the least for my own disappointment. That now is nothing. It is you, it is of you only that I think, whom I wish to save. Do not chide me: pardon me, pardon me, as you have done a thousand times; pardon and pity me. I am so young and really so inexperienced; after all, I am only a child; besides, I have not a friend in the world except you. I am a villain, a fool; all villains are. I know it. But I cannot help it. I did not make myself. The question now is, How are we to get out of this scrape? How are we to save your life?’
‘Do you really mean, Fakredeen, that my life is in peril?’
‘Yes, I do,’ said the Emir, crying like a child.
‘You do not know the power of truth, Fakredeen. You have no confidence in it. Let me see the Queen.’
‘Impossible!’ he said, starting up, and looking very much alarmed.
‘Because, in the first place, she is mad. Keferinis, that is, her minister, one of my creatures, and the only person who can manage her, told me this moment that it was a perfect Kamsin, and that, if he approached her again, it would be at his own risk; and, in the second place, bad as things are, they would necessarily be much worse if she saw you, because (and it is of no use concealing it any longer) she thinks you already dead.’
‘Dead! Already dead!’
‘And where is your friend and companion?’ said Eva. ‘Does he know of these horrors?’
‘No one knows of them except myself. The Queen sent for me last night to speak to me of the subject generally. It was utterly vain to attempt to disabuse her; it would only have compromised all of us. She would only have supposed the truth to be an invention for the moment. I found your fate sealed. In my desperation, the only thing that occurred to me was to sympathise with her indignation and approve of all her projects. She apprised me that you should not live four-and-twenty hours. I rather stimulated her vengeance, told her in secresy that your house had nearly effected my ruin, and that there was no sacrifice I would not make, and no danger that I would not encounter, to wreak on your race my long-cherished revenge. I assured her that I had been watching my opportunity for years. Well, you see how it is, Eva; she consigned to me the commission which she would have whispered to one of her slaves. I am here with her cognisance; indeed, by this time she thinks ’tis all over. You comprehend?’
‘You are to be my executioner?’
‘Yes; I have undertaken that office in order to save your life.’
‘I care not to save my life. What is life to me, since he perhaps is gone who gave me that life, and for whom alone I lived!’
‘O Eva! Eva! don’t distract me; don’t drive me absolutely mad! When a man is doing what I am for your sake, giving up a kingdom, and more than a kingdom, to treat him thus! But you never did me justice.’ And Fakredeen poured forth renewed tears. ‘Keferinis is in my pay; I have got the signet of the covered way. Here are two Mamlouk dresses; one you must put on. ‘Without the gates are two good steeds, and in eight-and-forty hours we shall be safe, and smiling again.’
‘I shall never smile again,’ said Eva. ‘No, Fakredeen,’ she added, after a moment’s pause, ‘I will not fly, and you cannot fly. Can you leave alone in this wild place that friend, too faithful, I believe, whom you have been the means of leading hither?’
‘Never mind him,’ said the Emir. ‘I wish we had never seen him. He is quite safe. She may keep him a prisoner perhaps. What then? He makes so discreet a use of his liberty that a little durance will not be very injurious. His life will be safe enough. Cutting off his head is not the way to gain his heart. But time presses. Come, my sister, my beloved Eva! In a few hours it may not be in my power to effect all this. Come, think of your father, of his anxiety, his grief. One glimpse of you will do him more service than the most cunning leech.’
Eva burst into passionate tears. ‘He will never see us again. I saw him fall; never shall I forget that moment!’ and she hid her face in her hands.
‘But he lives,’ said Fakredeen. ‘I have been speaking to some of the Turkish prisoners. They also saw him fall; but he was borne off the field, and, though insensible, it was believed that the wound was not fatal. Trust me, he is at Aleppo.’ ‘They saw him borne off the field?’ ‘Safe, and, if not well, far from desperate.’ ‘O God of my fathers!’ said Eva, falling on her knees; ‘thine is indeed a mercy-seat!’
‘Yes, yes; there is nothing like the God of your fathers, Eva. If you knew the things that are going on in this place, even in these vaults and caverns, you would not tarry here an instant. They worship nothing but graven images, and the Queen has fallen in love with Tancred, because he resembles a marble statue older than the times of the preAdamite Sultans. Come, come!’
‘But how could they know that he was far from desperate?’
‘I will show you the man who spoke to him,’ said Fakredeen; ‘he is only with our horses. You can ask him any questions you like. Come, put on your Mamlouk dress, every minute is golden.’
‘There seems to me something base in leaving him here alone,’ said Eva. ‘He has eaten our salt, he is the child of our tents, his blood will be upon our heads.’
‘Well, then, fly for his sake,’ said Fakredeen; ‘here you cannot aid him; but when you are once in safety, a thousand things may be done for his assistance. I could return, for example.’
‘Now, Fakredeen,’ said Eva, stopping him, and speaking in a solemn tone, ‘if I accompany you, as you now require, will you pledge me your word, that the moment we pass the frontier you will return to him.’
‘I swear it, by our true religion, and by my hopes of an earthly crown.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07