One crept up the giddy stairways cut in the cliff-side, and through the passages of vaulted stone, holding one’s breath; for at that hour the place was evil.
In the darker angles of the tunnel-like ascent, catamawfreys hung snout downward, nuzzling the dusk. People said they could sing like birds. Father Gregory, the oldest monk in the famous monastery of Belle Pais, below the castle of Dieu d’Amour, said that when he came out to Cyprus from France, years before, there was still at Belle Pais an aged father who had heard them. Others, however, asserted that when Saint Hilarion the Abbot, flying before the throngs of pilgrims who besieged his solitude in the Egyptian desert, had taken refuge in a cavern of the inaccessible peak of Dieu d’Amour, he had exorcised the creatures, and they had vanished in hissing and foul smoke, never to reappear till the coming of the present queen — who knows?
Certainly they were there now, as all who mounted at dusk to the king’s castle had reason to know. You might cross yourself and invoke your guardian angel, and mutter litanies as hard as you liked; but even as you stole past the cavern of Saint Hilarion, where once there had been a chapel with tapers and relics, but now all was ruined and desecrate — even there, close to the arched entrance where countless pilgrims used to pray and kiss the threshold, Godfrey had seen the nuzzling creatures dangling and swinging. The castle of the Lusignan kings was not a wholesome place for the soul.
It was different at noonday. Then, from the sheer pinnacle on which it was poised like a bird, rich slopes fell away from the castle in a dappling of spring colours, wheat and wine and mulberry, rosy orchard and dark carob grove; and the wild peaks, as though driven by a ceaseless gale, blew eastward to Buffavento the impregnable, to Kantara, and the holy convent of Antiphonissa. Far below, on the blue sea, lay Kyrenia, the guardian fortress, compact in her walls, and the sea was a tossing of laughter all the way to the Caramanian coast, where the snows of the Taurus floated in absolute light. At that hour, as befitted its name, Dieu d’Amour, turreted, balconied, galleried to catch the sun, seemed made for delicate enchantments; and Godfrey, leaning on a trefoiled balcony over the abyss of light and sea, could joke with the squires and pages, and agree that the old stories must be true, and that, centuries before Saint Hilarion’s coming, Venus, Queen of Cyprus, had built that towering pleasure-house, and reigned there in mirth and revelry with her son Prince Cupid. An old wives’ tale, said the learned; yet hard to dispute, when the monks of Belle Pais still showed you, as the chief ornament of their cloister, the tomb of Queen Venus, heavy with marble wreaths. “And as for Prince Cupid,” they would add with a wink, “if we can’t show you his tomb as well, it’s because he’s still alive, and running about at his wicked work too fast to be caught.”
True enough, no doubt! but at Dieu d’Amour the mirth and revelry were long over, and now the ruin and doom were manifest.
Not that the castle was all a ruin. Though the chapel of Saint Hilarion was befouled, and the saint’s bones scattered to the winds, the king of Cyprus still kept an obstinate and mournful state in the upper apartments of the palace, and his queen, in her chamber, counted her pearls, and sat in a window staring northward, dark and sumptuous among her slaves. Sometimes for days she did not speak; when she saw the king she merely burst out laughing. She thought only of her dresses and jewels — and of those for whom she adorned herself. Her tire-women had to drag out new robes every day from chests painted with saints and knights, or inlaid with crescents and traceries of mother-of-pearl. Now and then, if the veils from Sidon or the velvets from Damascus were not instantly forthcoming, a slave-girl was beaten with rods and hurried off swooning to a dungeon; but another maid, if she bought a new kind of song-bird from a wandering pedlar, or coaxed a Compostella cockle-shell off a pilgrim’s hat, might have an emerald tossed at her by her mistress’s contemptuous hand. There were always merchants hanging about below, at Kyrenia, to profit by the royal whims; and it was said that to have audience of her majesty they had to pay the shrewd governor of the castle a heavy toll. But on most days the queen sat staring northward, hour by hour, and said nothing, and saw nothing; and the king played at chess with his knights, or taught a little dog to dance. To this was the ruler reduced who had been the last aspirant to the Christian crown of Jerusalem, had conquered Alexandria for a day, and stood in the train of princes when the Roman Emperor was crowned at Rheims.
Near the top of the last stairway Godfrey plunged into a tunnel-like passage. At its end he groped for a low door of cedar-wood, and tapped on it three times. After a moment the bars shot back, and he caught a sweet waft of sandal and aloes, stooped his tall shoulder to creep in, and felt the Circassian girl’s hand dragging him through obscurity and out into a vaulted room.
The last sunlight filled the panes of the western oriel; it was as bright as a new day. The princess, lute in hand, stood pencilled against this resurrection light like a little dark saint on a golden ground. But in reality she was not dark: under her coif and veil her hair spiralled out like the gold wire of the old heathen ornaments which the labourers dug out of the vineyards in the valleys.
“Come,” she said, throwing aside her lute; “I’m impatient.”
The Circassian girl moved the inlaid lectern of ebony wood toward the window. On it rested a smooth page of vellum, torn from an ancient illuminated book, the illumination turned face down so that the blank side of the page was uppermost. On this, written out in comely script, was the Lusignan device: “Pour Lealte Maintenir”, and underneath had been scrawled a few imaginative pot-hooks. The Princess Medea was learning to write.
Godfrey the page was her writing-master. Born of a rude English knight and a shy little Norman mother, and early orphaned by both parents, the boy had been bred up by his mother’s brother, Sub–Prior of Saint Germer-de-Fly in Normandy, and had there learnt to read and write, and in course of time would probably have received the tonsure; but when he was twelve or thirteen a company of knights rode by on their way to the Holy Places, and one of them, the tallest and wittiest, took a fancy to Godfrey, and carried him off as his page. This noble adventurer, John of Yvetot, was now a liegeman of the Lusignans, and in command of the fortress of Kyrenia. People said he commanded the queen too. At any rate, he came and went as he pleased in Dieu d’Amour, and his page Godfrey with him. But no one knew that Godfrey was teaching the princess to write. Her royal parents would have been scandalized at her wishing to acquire so unprincely an art; or the queen might have been jealous and suspicious; one could never tell. She seldom visited her poor ailing son, and gave little thought to her daughter. The Princess Medea, it was whispered, might have done as she pleased in graver matters; but this clerkly business would have needed explaining. It savoured too much of necromancy. So she and her ladies kept the matter to themselves, and thus added the requisite touch of peril to a task which might otherwise have grown dull. For the princess was royal enough to show no clerkly aptitude. She could embroider like Queen Penelope if she chose — but write!
The bolts were slipped home again, and the Circassian girl curled herself up to sleep in a corner.
“No; that E is wrong again. Look —— .” Godfrey, trembling a little, dipped his quill in the ink-horn, and wrote out a large fair E. Then he took the princess’s hand (like holding a bird, it was so warm and beat so), and tried to make it form the same lines. The princess, wrinkling her forehead and biting her lip, bent over their linked fingers — but suddenly the pen fell on the page with a splutter.
“Oh — ” cried the scribe, reproachfully.
“I don’t want to write,” she said.
Godfrey, reddening, drew back. Had he offended her? “What does it please your Highness to want?”
She moved out to the balcony, and beckoned. “Look.”
Far to the west, across leagues of sea and mountain, the sun was plunging down to a fiery burial behind the summit of Andramako. As it descended, the upper spaces of the sky turned green, and the green melted into feathery rippled flames. Below where the two were leaning the cedar-spurred crags dropped to the twilight of the plain, and the edge of the plain drew its dark tracery for miles along a golden sea. Farther still, above the Asian shore, the snows of Taurus floated in lilac twilight. Under the balcony, in the windows of Belle Pais, just visible through its colonnade of cypresses, the candles were lighting for vespers. All else in the depths was dark. The bells of a flock of sheep tinkled homeward. Girl and boy leaned and listened.
“How have I displeased your Highness?”
“Everything displeases me.” It was her mother’s tone. Sometimes she had that mocking note which made Godfrey’s heart contract; then again her voice was as fresh as the sheep-bells. “Do you really believe that Queen Venus built this palace, Godfrey?”
“All the chronicles say so.”
“She was a princess of our house, I suppose?”
Godfrey flushed. “I can’t say exactly. I think she came from Babylon.”
“Across the sea there?”
“Farther even than Antioch?”
“And she was driven away with all her train by that sulky old anchorite Hilarion?”
“Who was a great saint, your Highness knows.”
She smiled a little. “She is avenged, though; for now his chapel is become a haunt of bats and vipers.”
“More’s the pity, your Highness — ”
“Ah but he offended a goddess! That’s not safe. She WAS a goddess, Godfrey? They say she had her altars here.”
“They say she was goddess of Love. But those are sorcerers’ tales, and forbidden, as your Highness knows.”
“Forbidden HERE?” The princess laughed.
“I wish your Highness would not laugh — like that.”
“How shall I laugh, then?” She laid her hands on his shoulders and swung him round to her. “So?”
Her little face was close to his, lit by the sunset, like a delicate ivory touched with gilding. “So?” Her mouth was round and serious. It emitted the faintest tremor of a laugh. He looked into her eyes, deep as wells, and a thirst rose in him to drink of them. He was hot and beating all over after his breathless climb. He stooped and kissed the hem of her veil.
“They are marrying me to my uncle, the Prince of Antioch,” she continued in the same cool taunting voice. “Next month at Famagusta. We shall keep great state in Antioch.”
“Oh, no — no — no! Your Highness mocks me! It will not be.” The boy threw himself sobbing at her feet.
“Horrible, isn’t it?” The little princess laughed. “You know the way he grunts and storms, and breaks out all over in sweat. But what can you or I do to prevent it, my poor Godfrey? And I shall have lovers — as many as I choose. You shall be the first of them, if you like. DO you like, Godfrey — Godfrey? Look at the big star over there . . . as big as a moon. What is it?”
“They call it Venus.”
She laughed again, still more softly, and he laughed with her. She wound their two heads together in her veil of Tyrian gauze.
“Queen Venus . . . who was my great-great-grandmother. She shall be our star, then, Godfrey? Hush! What was that dark thing that just flew across her?”
From the cedars under the balcony a harsh whirr of bat-like wings had cut the air. Something flashed close to them, and Godfrey caught a single note, thrilling and sweet as a boy’s treble.
“I thought I heard a bird,” said the princess.
“It was the nightingales at Belle Pais,” he stammered.
Famagusta lay under a pitiless sun. Like an old Egyptian crocodile basking in the heat, the city stretched her length of amber-coloured walls and towers along the flat blue sea.
John of Yvetot was feasting with the archbishop in his lordship’s golden-brown palace, facing the mighty spires and buttresses of his cathedral church of Saint Nicholas. Archbishop and knight were in their lordly cups, with many other knights and prelates, and the Moorish girls were dancing in clear veils, and plum-coloured slaves fanning the Archbishop’s concubine with fans shaped like the sacred flabellum, and flies battening on the welter of meat pasties, dismembered fowls, molten jellies and disembowelled pomegranates that covered the tables. Godfrey, dizzy and sick, slipped out into the square . . .
John of Yvetot had ridden across the island of Cyprus to Famagusta with young Godfrey in his train. The knight had been hastily despatched to prepare for the princess’s wedding to her uncle of Antioch. The matter was still a secret, for the dispensation from Rome had not yet arrived; but it was a secret that any one in the bazaars could have told you, and the town was all a-feast for their coming.
Godfrey had ridden all those hot weary miles from Dieu d’Amour, through forest, marsh and plain, with burning head and hands of ice. A weight lay in the room of his boy’s heart. The princess had suddenly said, as he was leaving her: “Love is best, and I will escape with you. Carry me to Normandy. I want to get away from all this blasphemy and vileness. My jewels will be enough to pay our way there. And even if we have to live in a woodman’s hut and herd swine, it will be better than this — it will be the best thing in the world, as long as you and I are together.”
When she spoke like that he could have lifted the world on his shoulders for her. Sometimes he feared, in that great cruel palace, to see her drawn to her mother’s way of life; when she jested, as she had of her betrothal to the Prince of Antioch, he shuddered and trembled for her. But the next moment he understood that her mockery was the mockery of despair, and that a new soul in her, helpless and inarticulate as a newborn infant, was stirring and crying to him for help. And his passion became clarified and illumined, and he touched her little hand with awe.
But he was only a poor page, and how could he hope to succeed in so desperate an enterprise as she had charged him with? To carry off a daughter of the house of Lusignan, in the teeth of governors, chamberlains, eunuchs, sentinels and slaves, seemed something that only a prince in a fairy-tale could achieve. Luckily a man was not a Norman for nothing; and audacity and astuteness were evenly mixed in Godfrey’s blood. He pondered long; and it seemed to him that his only chance lay in secretly hiring a fishing-boat at Famagusta, sending it around the coast to Kyrenia, and one night getting the princess down from Dieu d’Amour (it must be a night when the governor of Kyrenia was up at the castle revelling), and so to sea with his treasure — at God’s mercy. He was sure it must be right to get his princess away from all that lust and cruelty . . . and most of all from the dark pomp of Antioch, at the side of the savage old man whom she hated. It was horrible to think that Rome gave such dispensations . . . Of course he would save her, his little saint . . .
Even to Godfrey’s heavy heart Famagusta, under that golden sun, was not a spectacle to be neglected. No man could count the proud city’s soaring church-towers and sculptured convent-fronts — so like the great abbeys of his own Normandy, only russet-gold, almost sun-coloured, instead of gray, and with palms shooting up between their fretted towers and buttresses. Passing across the square in front of the archbishop’s palace were trains of camels bearing the riches of Asia and Byzantium from the high-prowed blue and green ships in the harbour. Piles of rugs and veils and damascened armour were heaped under the arches of the bazaars, and thronging the streets were Greek sailors, Moslem merchants, naked blackamoors, ladies falcon on wrist, riding Norman palfreys, chained captives being sold by paunchy Jews, sorcerers swallowing snakes and knives, young boys of the desert with pomegranate flowers behind their ears dancing in strait tunics to a wail of savage music, painted courtesans leaning from pink terraces, scarred galley-slaves drinking in the taverns, story-tellers squatting on their carpets inside a ring of squatting Moslems; while from the innumerable church-towers a great swallow-flight of chimes wove a net of prayer above all the noise and lust and traffic.
Godfrey stood and stared; and as he stared the throng parted, and he saw another stream of people, ragged pilgrims, vagabonds and cripples, pressing by him after some new sight. Boy-like, he was seized with a desire to know what they were after, and elbowed a way through the crowd to where they were gathering, at the end of the square, about the pedestal of a fallen statue. To the top of the pedestal had mounted a small haggard figure in goatskin and tattered cloak, with eyes gleaming through wisps of unkempt straw-coloured hair. Was it boy or woman, Godfrey wondered — or some ageless apparition of the desert? Under the hood there looked out a small pinched face, so tanned by desert suns, so wasted with weeping and fasting, that gazing at it he forgot to speculate on age or sex. Then a woman’s voice spoke; low and clear it thrilled across the market-place to the edge of the tatterdemalion following.
“Here, among your houses of prayer, I denounce you! Here, half way between the palaces of your archbishop and your king — ” the woman’s lean arm pointed in turn to each of the stately buildings — “I stand and declare to you your doom! They say there never was a city with so many churches as yours — I say there never was a city with so many sins. If you covered every inch of your island with churches there would not be enough to equal the number of your iniquities.
“Men tell me those churches were built in expiation of old evils — I say they were built to buy licence for new crimes. And what do I see when I look within them? What do I see issuing forth from them even now?”
The speaker paused, her arm of denunciation again outstretched. From the archway of the archbishop’s palace a white mule harnessed with gold was being led out by feathered blackamoors. A lady sat on it in careless state. She dropped her painted lids on the throng, and signed that a green velvet umbrella should be raised above her head. The crowd knew her and parted as she rode on.
“What do I see? The Host being carried from the house of your venerable Father in God to be laid on the lips of the dying? No — but Sin herself riding forth from his door like the sun in his splendour; and if I lifted the roof of the king’s palace yonder, I should show you Sin lying on golden cushions, and Sin drinking from golden goblets, and Sin mocking and blaspheming against all things holy and of good report. And what else should I see in your convents and your monasteries, that are built over every inch of ground your churches have left free? Should I see prayer and abstinence and mercy buying back with tears and flagellations all these unspeakable horrors and impunities?”
At the question someone laughed in the crowd, and the laugh spread. The scandal of the monasteries was so flagrant that it was safe to laugh at it. At Belle Pais all the novices were the sons of the old monks. At our Lady of Tyre . . .
The woman’s voice went on, louder and shriller. Sins that Godfrey hardly knew the name of were flung like offal to the crowd. Atheists, necromancers, harlots and heretics were denounced. Ah, heretics —! What was that vainglorious monument almost touching their own holy Cathedral? No other than Saint George of the Greeks, impious temple of the schismatics! And there it stood, and its vault rang with their blasphemies, and its bell, calling men to hellfire, was suffered to mingle with the bells of Christian churches, calling them to life eternal.
“Ah, Sodom, ah, Gomorrah, ah, great and blasphemous city, more abounding than any other in jewels and slaves and silks, in aloe-wood and labdanum and gold, beware lest the sun that beats down upon you today turn to fire tomorrow, and utterly consume you, leaving only a ruin that owls and satyrs shall inhabit, till the sea washes even that away, and men sailing by ask what is the name of that desert. Tomorrow, not later, shall this be . . . ”
A few people had laughed when the speaker’s skeleton arm was stretched out accusingly toward the dumb Lusignan palace. Everyone knew that the king of Cyprus never came to Famagusta. It was whispered that he was too much afraid of his barons, and of his unruly Greek and Moslem subjects. It had needed all the queen’s violence to obtain from him that their daughter’s nuptials should be celebrated there with proper state, and in all men’s sight, as became a princely bridal . . . But whatever else the strange pilgrim-woman had said was true. Everybody knew about the monasteries, and about the excesses of the archbishop’s private life, his open tolerance of the schismatics, and even, people said, of the Moslems. The monks of Antiphonissa had been authorized by decree to take wives, like the schismatic priests. Saint Paul, the authorities affirmed, had advised the measure in hot climates. It was said to be written in the Book.
Well, Famagusta was hot enough, God knew. Ah, that blistering decomposing heat! How it weakened the will, corroded the soul, turned a man’s marrow to tepid water! It was beating down so mercilessly on Godfrey’s temples that while the pilgrim was still speaking he left the square and sought the shelter of the arcades. There he crept through the crowd that laughed and drank and wantoned, till he reached, on the edge of the town, a fortified brown church in a ring of palms. It was the church of Saint George of the Latins, the place of worship nearest the citadel, and so exposed to attack from the sea that when mass was said there archers always mounted guard on the chemin-de-ronde behind the high parapet. Today no service was going on, and the stone roof was unguarded by its bowmen.
Godfrey pushed back the door, and the coolness of the interior flowed over his burning flesh. Through a lingering mist of incense he saw lights twinkling about the Host. On the marble floor a few dim figures were scattered in attitudes of prayer. Godfrey knelt at the foot of a pillar and pressed his burning head against the stone and prayed . . . A long time he knelt, like a drowned man with the sea washing over him, as one day, the preaching woman said, it would wash over all that was left of Famagusta . . .
At last he got to his feet again, and as he looked up his eyes lit on the capital of the column against which he had been kneeling. His sight was but half used to the dim light under the vaulting, but he recognized, about the abacus of the capital, a coil of evil-faced catamawfreys nuzzling downward as if to mock at him. Yes — there they hung, wrought in the stone of that holy place by some derisive chisel . . . His heart tightened at the presage; but as he drew back he felt a quiet touch, and there in front of him stood the goat-skinned woman of the square. In the half-light of the church he saw her face more clearly than in the blaze outside. It was a small parched face, still young, with high cheek-bones, and wisps of hair like sunburnt grass hanging over eyes as clear as pale gray crystals. He had never seen eyes so clear.
“Sir page, I saw you listening to me just now in the market-place.” She spoke with a strange commanding air, as if used to the speech of courts; but her language was a queer northern Latin which Godfrey would not have understood but for his monastic schooling at Saint Germer. He nodded: “Yes.”
“Why did the people laugh when I denounced the sins in the King’s palace?”
Godfrey, though those narrow eyes of hers burned him like icicles, could not help smiling at the question. “Because the palace is empty. The king never comes there any more.”
“Where then does he live?”
“A three days’ journey from here. High up in the mountains, in the castle of Dieu d’Amour.” He spoke with the young courtier’s superiority of knowledge. The idea of people not knowing where the king of Cyprus lived!
“Dieu d’Amour! Where is that?” Her voice was imperious, but Godfrey made no answer. There had been questioning enough, he began to think.
She repeated the name slowly, two or three times, with her halting guttural pronunciation. Then she said: “Thank you, sir page. God keep you,” and moved away. But after a step she turned back. “Is there any one you wish me to pray for?” she asked.
Under the spell of those crystal eyes Godfrey’s arrogance fell. “The Princess Medea,” he whispered back, so low that he doubted if she heard the name.
“The Princess Medea,” she repeated.
Godfrey lifted the wooden cross hanging from her rosary and kissed it. A sense of compunction loosened his heart. The pilgrim woman continued to look at him. “If any may be saved from the doom, it shall be my cousin the Princess Medea,” she said in the same soft voice.
“Your cousin —?” the boy exclaimed, indignant, yet half awed — such a note of command was in her sweetness. She smiled in silence. “But you — who are you then?” he stammered.
“A cousin of the kings of the earth, the lowest handmaid of the King of Heaven.” The answer, no louder than a whisper, rang in his ears with the sound of trumpets. Godfrey continued to gaze, half pitying her for a poor madwoman, half dominated by the power that breathed from her. “Your name —?”
But the tattered figures of her following were closing in about her and crowding Godfrey aside. He caught by the sleeve a long lean man with the haunted eyes of the desert. “This pilgrim woman you are with — who is she?”
The man’s eyes looked through and beyond him. “Of the race of some northern king, they say; but to the Christian what are such glories but perdition?” Suddenly his gaze seemed to return to Godfrey. “Sir page, will you leave all and come with us?” he asked.
Godfrey shook his head, and the man pulled himself away and hurried toward the door of the church. The woman was passing out with her followers, a little band of unheeded footsore pilgrims. Famagusta had heard herself denounced too often to think of any of them again.
Godfrey felt new strength in his veins. Was it the hush and coolness of the church, or some virtue which had gone out of the woman’s touch? He was glad he had whispered that name to her. Whoever she was, whatever she had meant by her strange words, he felt there was holiness in her, and that with the help of her prayers he would be given courage and cunning for his task.
The steep windings of the cliff stairway seemed to lift him on wings. Never had the climb to the sunset seemed so short. More than a month had passed since he had ridden away from Dieu d’Amour with his lord. Affairs were treated deliberately in these subtle half-Oriental lands, and it was hinted, moreover, that the negotiations were prolonged because John of Yvetot found the change agreeable from sleepy Kyrenia to the great sea-port, and certain eyes there brighter and younger than the queen’s.
But here the two of them were back at last, the knight and his page, and the long delay, if little to the queen’s liking, had served Godfrey’s purpose unexpectedly. In a month, if one had two or three of the royal jewels in one’s scrip, and a shrewd Norman head on one’s shoulders, there were many things that even a young lad could accomplish, and certain people one could come to an understanding with. Godfrey felt he had reason to be proud of his cleverness, and rode back to Dieu d’Amour with so light a heart that he hardly felt the heat and fatigue of the way.
Even when he came to that dark tortuous vaulting of the stairs where nocturnal creatures swung from the groins, it hardly required an effort of the will to pass under the nuzzling mass that he imagined . . . Only, it was queer . . . what a foul smell! Like sulphur fumes . . . the devil’s own smell . . . and a phosphorescent glimmer . . . He pushed on, a little sickened, and his foot slipped on something soft, like the body of a dead animal, leathery yet boneless. He kicked it aside and hurried upward. As he mounted, another light, faint but pure, shone down on him; and reaching the angle of the Abbot Hilarion’s chapel, he stopped amazed. It was from there that the light had shone. The ruined altar had been set up and hung with a white cloth. Tapers burned on each side of a high gold crucifix, and a carpet of rich dyes, strewn with twigs of thyme and rosemary, covered the earthen floor. The chapel was empty; but the boy had the feeling — he could not have said why — that someone had left it but a moment before; some one whose devotions he had perhaps disturbed, and who might have slipped out of sight into the crypt-like shadows behind the altar, where Saint Hilarion was said to have made his bed on a stone. Godfrey crossed himself and knelt, wrapped in an atmosphere of prayer. Words of devotion rose, forming themselves unbidden on his lips. His soul seemed lifted on another’s rapture, as the body floats on a summer sea.
He rose and hastened upward, his heart on fire, his mind too full of celestial light for words and reasoning. At his knock, the door of cedar-wood opened as usual, and there was the great traceried window, black against the evening gold. But the princess was not to be seen. Startled, Godfrey looked about him at the empty room. The Circassian girl met his glance with a smile, and finger on lip, tiptoed across the silken carpets to draw back a curtain. The princess’s oratory . . .
A niche sheathed with gold and heavy with burning spices. The princess knelt beneath a Christ of ivory in a strait Byzantine skirt. The low recess seemed full of the same mysterious power of prayer as the chapel on the way up. Godfrey, crossing himself, drew back abashed. The princess, seemingly unaware of his presence, remained absorbed in her devotions; but when she rose and turned to him, there was her own dear face. He knelt and touched the edge of her dress.
“You have been long away,” she said.
“Yes; but now everything is ready.”
Her face looked smaller than ever, white as a Host, and as if drawn inward, and distant. It was the heat, he supposed; even on this height the summer days were often intolerably heavy.
“You never doubted me?” he asked, touched in his pride.
She shook her head, and her eyes travelled back to his face — from where? He could not tell; but assuredly from some far country he had never seen.
She put out her hand and led him to the balcony. There hung the golden sun, the twilight stretched its wings across the valley, and lights were coming out in the windows of the abbey church of Belle Pais.
“Now tell me,” she said.
He told her, and she listened in silence to what he said.
She seldom spoke much, and sometimes, when she did, and it was in her mother’s tone, Godfrey would have given the world to have her silent. But tonight her silence oppressed him, perhaps because he felt that it oppressed her too, that she was vainly struggling to break it. She listened to him attentively; he could see that by the expression of her little profile, so sharply drawn against the dimness; and now and then a pressure of her fingers on his arm signified (he supposed) approval or assent. That was all.
At last he said, with a touch of impatience: “Do you still reproach me for being gone so long?”
“No; it was necessary,” she answered, very low.
“And your Highness is satisfied that all I have done is well done?”
He hesitated, his heart in his throat. “And you are still . . . still of the same mind?”
She turned to him quickly. “About what was agreed between us? More than ever, a thousand times more!”
His blood tingled with hope. “Then, Princess — then — my reward?”
Again those distant eyes travelled back to him, not estranged, but only, as it seemed, bewildered, seeking. “Reward?”
What a clumsy boor she must think him! But never mind — he was not the wooer to lose heart. “Do you remember, that other night . . . the night you promised . . . the night you wound my head with yours in your veil?”
Gravely, as if half-perplexed, she lifted her hands to her coif. “The night is so hot that I have no veil.” But suddenly she tossed off the coif, swiftly unplaited her long braids, and shaking out the veil of her hair wound it so close about his head that their cheeks were one. “Is that what you want? And this?” She turned her face and it melted into his, lid on lid, lip on lip. So they clung.
“And now goodbye, Godfrey,” she whispered.
“Till tomorrow night?” he whispered back.
“Tomorrow night.” Already she was out of his arms, and half the room was between them. The distance seemed like that between earth and a star. The Circassian was unbolting the outer door.
“An hour after midnight?” he insisted from the threshold.
The princess smiled, finger on lip, and watched him as he bent under the lintel. He heard the bolts shoot back into their sockets, and began to stumble down the long stairs to the foot of the peak.
“I have her safe!” he thought.
In the glory of the moment he had forgotten all else; but as he reached the turn of the stairs above the abbot’s cavern, his heart dilated with another joy. He had the obscure feeling that Dieu d’Amour had been cleansed of old evils as Saint Hilarion’s deserted shrine had been purified of filth and unclean spirits; and he paused with bowed head before the threshold of the chapel. The altar-lights were out; but an oil-taper still burned before an image of the saint cased in silver and gold, in the antiquated Greek fashion. The place, dusky now, and empty, was still sweet with the perfume of strewn herbs, and also, it seemed, with a subtler sweetness, as of the lingering essence of prayer. Godfrey knelt again, giving his all to his God and his princess.
When he began to descend the stairs below the chapel he felt a recoil at the idea of stumbling once more on that leathery boneless body, and smelling the sulphur after the sweetness; but all the way was clean, and the darkness perfumed, as if holy feet had fallen there just before him, and the powers of evil had gone up like smoke. He had the feeling which sometimes comes to a watcher when, looking out on a midnight sky, he sees with his inner sight the beating of the wings of dawn.
It was not till he reached the foot of the cliff-stairs, and had scrambled through a breach in the wall of which he and one or two others knew the secret, that he remembered he had not questioned the Princess Medea about the changed appearance of the chapel.
Those lights, those altar ornaments, had been a sight so inexplicable and startling that he had felt the awe of it till he reached her presence; but from the moment of seeing her again she had filled his world. It was always so. When he was in her presence nothing seemed memorable or remarkable except the fact that she existed. But now he was sorry he had not spoken to her of what he had seen, for something in her face as she rose from praying seemed to say that she too had been touched by the same mystery.
What could have happened to Dieu d’Amour, castle of lust and terror and misery, thus to purify and transform it? What had led the steps of the saints back to its unhallowed threshold? What pious hands had lifted the abbot’s altar, swept and garnished the floor, relit the taper? As Godfrey gazed up at that aerial miracle of rock and masonry, fierce yet tottering against the sunset, he asked himself if what he had seen really existed, or might not rather have been a vision, the emanation of his princess’s hidden longings? She had always sickened at what went on in that half-ruined half-bedizened stronghold, though she had been born to that way of life, and knew no other, save what he, a mere page, and no older than herself, had given her hints of from his readings in the histories of the saints. To these she listened with fervour; and though at times he felt other moods in her, they would always vanish when she saw his distress . . . Yes; he wished he had remembered to question her about the chapel . . .
Night had fallen when he turned down the path to Kyrenia. Higher and more majestic at every turn the Lusignan palace soared above him, lights kindling here and there through its dark trefoils and moving behind the slits in its mysterious walls. Still descending, he skirted the cypress rampart of Belle Pais, where Queen Venus lay; and there too he saw lights, and heard monks chanting. As he passed into the cypress shadow he saw a beggar-woman on a stone. Her hood hung forward over her bent head, and her hands were clasped on her staff. The shade where she sat was so deep that he started back, and just avoided stumbling over her; but she neither withdrew her staff, nor looked up, and he went on, thinking her asleep.
When he reached the castle of Kyrenia, all was dark and quiet. His lordship the governor had ridden with his train to inspect the fortress of Buffavento, and was to sup on his way home with the abbess of Antiphonissa. Godfrey crept past the sentinel, who was his friend, and stole up the stairs to the room where he slept with the other pages. They had all ridden out with their lord, and the room was empty, and open to the stars. Godfrey sat late in the window and watched the glitter of the southern night undulating on the sea below. Now and then a sail darkened the stars as it sped by under the castle walls; and while he watched it, he thought of a fishing-vessel lying snug in the little port, a lantern swinging from her stern, which the next night, all sails spread, would be beating northward to Tyre or Caesarea. He forgot the illuminated chapel, and all his visions, and felt only his princess’s lips, when she had wound their two heads in her hair.
The night following there was a supper in the queen’s apartments, and John of Yvetot and all his train rode up to Dieu d’Amour. Rumour said that the queen thought the governor of Kyrenia supped too often with the abbess of Antiphonissa; and to dispel her anger he had ordered a band of Syrian dancers to come from Famagusta and dance before her.
Godfrey rode with the others, and sat with the queen’s pages at the end of the vaulted banqueting hall, while the queen and the governor, and their knights and ladies, feasted at the high table under the dais; and when the feast was over, and songs and laughter rang high, the curtains of Damascus silk were drawn open, and slim painted dancers glided into the space between the tables.
Godfrey’s head was as light as if he had emptied the big golden bowl of Cyprian wine which the slaves carried about the table; but he had hardly touched his lips to it. He was dizzy with the sense of impending adventure, yet the Norman side of his head was as clear and true as a newly-cast bell. He was watching with every nerve and vein of his prompt alert body, every cell of his lucid brain, watching the moment to slip out unperceived, to reach the bottom of that endless cliff-staircase, and spring on the horse which was to carry him down the mountain to Kyrenia.
So closely had he timed his flight, so sure was he of himself and his preparations, that one half of him could sit and laugh, and follow the weaving of olive-armed dancers, while the other half, body and brain, was already down the hill, in the dark little port, and on the deck of a fishing-vessel from Famagusta whose sails were even now being shaken out.
John of Yvetot and his knights had drunk deep, as usual; and the queen, leaning forward, laughing, languishing, had one arm about the governor’s neck, while the other drew to her the youngest and slimmest of the Syrians. There was a confusion of laughter and clapping; every eye was turned to the splendid shameless woman under the purple curtains of the dais. Godfrey slipped from his seat, felt for his dagger, flung his cloak over him, and was out of the hall and down the winding passage to the cliff-stairs before the pages nearest him could have noted his absence. And who was he, after all, that any of the revellers should give him a thought? He leapt down the stairs, came to the vaulted tunnel that he hated, found it all fair and free from evil things, noticed the taper floating in oil in the quiet shadowy chapel, and crossed himself and bent his knee on the threshold; then he hurried on and on, down and down, till he came to the courtyard at the foot of the cliff, where the knights’ horses were tethered to rings in the wall. As he had foreseen, the place was unlit and deserted. Every groom and ostler was up in the royal kitchens, laughing and drinking with the castle wenches. The very sentinel had vanished from the walls. So things went on festal evenings at Dieu d’Amour . . . Godfrey’s heart leapt up at the thought that so soon his princess would be gone from there forever. Already, he knew, she was below at Kyrenia, hidden with the Circassian girl in a safe house above the port, where she could almost have dropped out of the window to the deck of the fishing-boat from Famagusta.
The night was black, with a curtain of sultry cloud. Godfrey found his horse, untethered him, and in a trice was picking his way under the castle walls and past Belle Pais, till he came to the open slopes below, and then stretched away in a gallop to Kyrenia. As he entered the gates the bell of a church rang eleven strokes. He had an hour before him.
He left his horse in the castle yard and hurried up to his room to fetch his purse, his papers and his little bundle of clothes, all stowed in safe hiding beneath his bed. As he passed out of the room he paused in the embrasure of the window. He could not see the port, though it was so close below him, but he pictured the stealthy preparations going forward on the deck of the vessel . . . Presently she would be gliding out, catching the night breeze off the mountains, and speeding over the dark waves like that vessel he barely guessed at as he watched her sails cross the open space framed by the window. He lingered and watched the vessel, wondering what she carried, and whither she was bent; just so, in an hour, would he and his love be speeding.
On a night so cloudy, it was pitch dark in the streets of Kyrenia, and Godfrey had given orders that no light should show through the windows of the house above the port. He groped his way along the lane, fumbled for the worn door-step, and knocked very softly on the panel of the door, asking himself — in one of those sudden irrational terrors which come to the coolest — if, in the darkness, he were not knocking at the wrong door, and rousing a strange household, while close by, behind another of these featureless Eastern house-fronts, his princess waited . . .
The door opened a few inches, and to his word, “Lealte,” the voice of the woman of the house replied: “Maintenir.” He drew a breath of relief, stole in, and heard the door barred behind him. The woman, shading a candle, beckoned him to follow her to a room with shuttered windows. The room was empty. He questioned: “The lady-?”
The woman shook her head, but made signs that seemed reassuring. The lady had come — oh, yes, had come . . .
“Where is she? And her damsel? Is there no one —?”
In the same whisper the woman, evidently frightened and confused by his bewilderment, told him the two had been here and gone again, perhaps a half-hour earlier — she thought at least half an hour.
Visions of conspiracy and betrayal flashed through the boy’s mind. Dieu d’Amour was always thick with spying and delation; there was a watcher behind every arras. Fool that he had been, ever to imagine . . . Oh God, oh God, what had he done to have betrayed his princess to disaster? He caught the woman by the shoulders, shaking her as if to rattle her secret out of her. “Gone — gone where? Are you mad — or only lying? Give me her letter! Repeat her message! If you say she left none — .” He was clutching wildly at his dagger.
The woman raised imploring arms. “To the ship; to the ship; that was her message . . . ”
Godfrey’s anger broke in a rush of humility and gratitude. To the ship — she had gone to the ship! No doubt she had had her reasons. Perhaps the Circassian girl had picked up rumours, had hinted that they would be safer in the vessel’s hold than in the house. She would certainly have had her reasons. “To the ship?” he repeated. The woman, choking with fear, signed yes, and yes, to the ship . . . she had watched the two slip down to the port . . . on the blessed Virgin and all the saints she had . . .
Godfrey loosed his purse. Norman-like he counted, by the shaking light of the candle she held out, the exact sum he had promised; then he stormed out of the house, down the slippery black lane to the port.
The port was deserted. The silent fishing-boats huddled flank to flank in the narrow space looked like sleeping birds a-roost. The water clapped their sides with sharp little ripples; outside a fresh wind had risen. But the boats lay dumb and dark, as if unaware of it; not a sign of life on any of them. Godfrey, bewildered, dizzy with anxiety, groped from one stern to the other, stumbling over coiled ropes, sea-weedy chains, slimy offal, and all the dirt and welter of an Eastern harbour-side. The darkness confused him. He thought he knew where his vessel lay, the vessel whose sails should be already spread; but he was blinded by the night and by his own excitement. He feared to call aloud, to attract attention, to risk boarding the wrong boat. With a sinking heart he stood and waited — waited for some signal which should come to him from his own vessel; though a deep dread already told him that her berth was empty.
At length he turned and looked back at the threatening mass of the overhanging fortress, and at the black house-fronts, lightless, indistinguishable, along the quay . . .
Everything that might have happened to baffle and upset his plan rushed on him with the fatal certainty of evil. Why, there was no ill thing that might not have befallen the fugitives! Even between house and port the princess might have been waylaid, carried back to Dieu d’Amour, or locked up behind those secret walls above him. He stared at the fortress in an agony of dread and conjecture. It seemed as if he must force his eyes to penetrate those thick walls and tear their secret from them, as he had tried to shake it from the woman. But he turned back disheartened, and looked again at the berth where his vessel had lain, and saw that past question its place was empty. Would the sailing-master, despite his orders and injunctions, have sailed without the princess? It seemed incredible — if anything was dark and unsurmised had been incredible in those secret Eastern places. But what if the vessel had sailed with the princess, if she had deserted her faithful page? Godfrey, in fresh agony, turned again to interrogate the row of houses along the quay. A feeble light twinkled in the window of one of them; a sailors’ tavern, he remembered, of the humblest sort; he would go in, and see if anyone was stirring who could give him news. Even there, he well knew, a trap might lurk; but he was desperate now, and it was easier to face new risks than to stand there, listening, straining into the night, like a man whose eyes are bandaged and his ears stopped.
He was moving toward the tavern when he felt a quick twitch at his cloak. He started back and in the darkness just guessed a man’s figure before him, cloaked, too, but bare-headed — beggar or pilgrim, it seemed. Godfrey held his breath, waiting, alert for a word or a sign. The man did not speak, but only pushed some small object into Godfrey’s hand, and slipped away into the night. Godfrey called after him in a wild whisper and made a dash in his direction; but the darkness swallowed him up, and his flying steps woke no echo in the dust and slime underfoot. Baffled, confused, Godfrey turned back. Clutching at the packet he crept up to the tavern on cautious feet, and examined what the man had given him by the glimmer of light from within.
He saw a cord fastening a bit of brownish stuff that seemed torn from a pilgrim’s cloak. Wrapped in it was a rough wooden cross, folded in a scented scrap of Tyrian gauze. Godfrey knew the scent, he knew the delicate scarf — they were hers. The gauze was torn from the veil in which she had wound their heads that evening on the balcony . . . And suddenly, in the same instant, he knew the man who had started up so mysteriously out of the darkness, and then vanished into it again. It was the haggard pilgrim he had questioned in the church of Saint George of the Latins at Famagusta, the man who had said to him: “Will you leave all and come with us, sir page?” And the cross — did he not know that too? He lifted it to the light, held it closer, and recognized it for the cross the strange preaching woman in the church had worn at her girdle, the cross he had stooped to kiss when she promised to pray for the Princess Medea . . .
Alone there in the dark, clutching the cross to him, grown lad that he was, and a princess’s champion, Godfrey burst into sobs. For he understood at last that God had stolen his lady from him, and that the vessel he had seen from his window an hour earlier, speeding away before the wind, was bearing the Princess Medea, and with her the pilgrim woman who had vowed to save her from the ruin of her house.
Years later, long after that ruin had fallen, and all the burning dream was over, Godfrey the Prior, an old man, sat in a gray Norman abbey, and heard from a wandering monk back from the Holy Places how the saintly Bridget of Sweden had forsaken her great estate, and her seat in the king’s court, to go through the world denouncing evil in high places. And the friar said that one day she had stood in the market-place of Famagusta, and foretold to the mocking crowd the woe that was to fall on the land of Cyprus two short years later, and the doom of their kings. But in what country and what convent the Princess Medea had taken refuge the monk could not say, for of her he had never heard men speak.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02