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   Chapter 2 MAHOMMED AND COUNT CORTI MAKE A WAGER

The Prince of India; Or, Why Constantinople Fell — Volume 01 By Lew Wallace Characters: 21846

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Upon the retirement of the Prince of India and the counsellors, Mahommed took seat by the table, and played with the sword of Solomon, making the pearls travel up and down the groove in the blade, listening to their low ringing, and searching for inscriptions. This went on until Count Corti began to think himself forgotten. At length the Sultan, looking under the guard, uttered an exclamation-looked again-and cried out:

"O Allah! It is true!-May I be forgiven for doubting him!-Come, Mirza, come see if my eyes deceive me. Here at my side!"

The Count mastered his surprise, and was presently leaning over the Sultan's shoulder.

"You remember, Mirza, we set out together studying Hebrew. Against your will I carried you along with me until you knew the alphabet, and could read a little. You preferred Italian, and when I brought the learned men, and submitted to them that Hebrew was one of a family of tongues more or less alike, and would have sent you with them to the Sidonian coast for inscriptions, you refused. Do you remember?"

"My Lord, those were the happiest days of my life."

Mahommed laughed. "I kept you three days on bread and water, and let you off then because I could not do without you.... But for the matter now. Under this guard-look-are not the brilliants set in the form of letters?"

Corti examined closely.

"Yes, yes; there are letters-I see them plainly-a name."

"Spell it."

"S-O-L-O-M-O-N."

"Then I have not deceived myself," Mahommed exclaimed. "Nor less has the Prince of India deceived me." He grew more serious. "A marvellous man! I cannot make him out. The more I do with him the more incomprehensible he becomes. The long past is familiar to him as the present to me. He is continually digging up things ages old, and amazing me with them. Several times I have asked him when he was born, and he has always made the same reply: 'I will tell when you are Lord of Constantinople.' ... How he hates Christ and the Christians! ... This is indeed the sword of Solomon-and he found it in the tomb of Hiram, and gives it to me as the elect of the stars now. Ponder it, O Mirza! Now at the mid of the night in which I whistle up my dogs of war to loose them on the Gabour-How, Mirza-what ails you? Why that change of countenance? Is he not a dog of an unbeliever? On your knees before me-I have more to tell you than to ask. No, spurs are troublesome. To the door and bid the keeper there bring a stool-and look lest the lock have an ear hanging to it. Old Kalil, going out, though bowing, and lip-handing me, never took his eyes off you."

The stool brought, Corti was about to sit.

"Take off your cap"-Mahommed spoke sternly-"for as you are not the Mirza I sent away, I want to see your face while we talk. Sit here, in the full of the light."

The Count seated, placed his hooded cap on the floor. He was perfectly collected. Mahommed fingered the ruby hilt while searching the eyes which as calmly searched his.

"How brave you are!" the Sultan began, but stopped. "Poor Mirza!" he began again, his countenance softened. One would have said some tender recollection was melting the shell of his heart. "Poor Mirza! I loved you better than I loved my father, better than I loved my brothers, well as I loved my mother-with a love surpassing all I ever knew but one, and of that we will presently speak. If honor has a soul, it lives in you, and the breath you draw is its wine, purer than the first expressage of grapes from the Prophet's garden down by Medina. Your eyes look truth, your tongue drips it as a broken honey-comb drips honey. You are truth as God is God."

He was speaking sincerely.

"Fool-fool-that I let you go!-and I would not-no, by the rose-door of Paradise and the golden stairs to the House of Allah, I would not had I loved my full moon of full moons less. She was parted from me; and with whose eyes could I see her so well as with yours, O my falcon? Who else would report to me so truly her words? Love makes men and lions mad; it possessed me; and I should have died of it but for your ministering. Wherefore, O Mirza"-

The Count had been growing restive; now he spoke. "My Lord is about committing himself to some pledge. He were wise, did he hear me first."

"Perhaps so," the Sultan rejoined, uncertainly, but added immediately: "I will hear you."

"It is true, as my Lord said, I am not the Mirza he despatched to Italy. The changes I have undergone are material; and in recounting them I anticipate his anger. He sees before him the most wretched of men to whom death would be mercy."

"Is it so bad? You were happy when you went away. Was not the mission to your content?"

"My Lord's memory is a crystal cup from which nothing escapes-a cup without a leak. He must recall how I prayed to stay with him."

"Yes, yes."

"My dread was prophetic."

"Tell me of the changes."

"I will-and truly as there is but one God, and he the father of life and maker of things. First, then, the affection which at my going was my Lord's, and which gave me to see him as the Light of the World, and the perfection of glory in promise, is now divided."

"You mean there is another Light of the World? Be it so, and still you leave me flattered. How far you had to travel before finding the other! Who is he?"

"The Emperor of the Greeks."

"Constantine? Are his gifts so many and rich? The next."

"I am a Christian."

"Indeed? Perhaps you can tell me the difference between God and Allah. Yesterday Kourani said they were the same."

"Nay, my Lord, the difference is between Christ and Mahomet."

"The mother of the one was a Jewess, the mother of the other an Arab-I see. Go on."

The Count did not flinch. "My Lord, great as is your love of the Princess Irene"-Mahommed half raised his hands, his brows knit, his eyes filled with fire, but the Count continued composedly-"mine is greater."

The Sultan recovered himself.

"The proof, the proof!" he said, his voice a little raised. "My love of her is consuming me, but I see you alive."

"My Lord's demand is reasonable. I came here to make the avowal, and die. Would my Lord so much?"

"You would die for the Princess?"

"My Lord has said it."

"Is there not something else in the urgency?"

"Yes-honor."

The Count's astonishment was unspeakable. He expected an outburst of wrath unappeasable, a summons for an executioner; instead, Mahommed's eyes became humid, and resting his elbow on the table, and his face on the thumb and forefinger, he said, gazing sorrowfully:

"Ahmed was my little brother. His mother published before my father's death, that my mother was a slave. She was working for her child already, and I had him smothered in a bath. Cruel? God forgive me! It was my duty to provide for the peace of my people. I had a right to take care of myself; yet will I never be forgiven. Kismet!... I have had many men slain since. I travel, going to mighty events beckoned by destiny. The ordinary cheap soul cannot understand how necessary it is that my path should be smooth and clear; for sometime I may want to run; and he will amuse or avenge himself by stamping me in history a monster without a soul. Kismet! ... But you, my poor Mirza, you should know me better. You are my brother without guile. I am not afraid to love you. I do love you. Let us see.... Your letters from Constantinople-I have them all-told me so much more than you intended, I could not suspect your fidelity. They prepared me for everything you have confessed. Hear how in my mind I disposed of them point by point.... 'Mirza,' I said, 'pities the Gabour Emperor; in the end he will love him. Loving a hundred men is less miraculous in a man than loving one. He will make comparisons. Why not? The Gabour appeals to him through his weakness, I through my strength. I would rather be feared than pitied. Moreover, the Gabour's day runs to its close, and as it closes, mine opens. Pity never justified treason.' ... And I said, too, on reading the despatch detailing your adventures in Italy: 'Poor Mirza! now has he discovered he is an Italian, stolen when a child, and having found his father's castle and his mother, a noble woman, he will become a Christian, for so would I in his place.' Did I stop there? The wife of the Pacha who received you from your abductors is in Broussa. I sent to her asking if she had a keepsake or memento which would help prove your family and country. See what she returned to me."

From under a cloth at the further end of the table, Mahommed drew a box, and opening it, produced a collar of lace fastened with a cameo pin. On the pin there was a graven figure.

"Tell me, Mirza, if you recognize the engraving." The Count took the cameo, looked at it, and replied, with a shaking voice:

"The arms of the Corti! God be praised!"

"And here-what are these, and what the name on them?"

Mahommed gave him a pair of red morocco half-boots for a child, on which, near the tops, a name was worked in silk.

"It is mine, my Lord-my name-'Ugo.'"

He cast himself before the Sultan, and embraced his knees, saying, in snatches as best he could:

"I do not know what my Lord intends-whether he means I am to die or live-if it be death, I pray him to complete his mercy by sending these proofs to my mother"-

"Poor Mirza, arise! I prefer to have your face before me."

Directly the Count was reseated, Mahommed continued:

"And you, too, love the Princess Irene? You say you love her more than I? And you thought I could not endure hearing you tell it? That I would summon black Hassan with his bowstring? With all your opportunities, your seeing and hearing her, as the days multiplied from tens to hundreds, is it for me to teach you she will come to no man except as a sacrifice? What great thing have you to offer her? While I-well, by this sword of Solomon, to-morrow morning I set out to say to her: 'For thy love, O my full Moon of full Moons, for thy love thou shalt have the redemption of thy Church.'... And besides, did I not foresee your passion? Courtiers stoop low and take pains to win favor; but no courtier, not even a professional, intending merely to please me, could have written of her as you did; and by that sign, O Mirza, I knew you were in the extremity of passion. Offended? Not so, not so! I sent you to take care of her-fight for her-die, if her need were so great. Of whom might I expect such service but a lover? Did I not, the night of our parting, foretell what would happen?" He paused gazing at the ruby of the ring on his finger.

"See, Mirza! There has not been a waking hour since you left me but I have looked at this jewel; and it has kept color faithfully. Often as I beheld it, I said: 'Mirza loves her because he cannot help it; yet he is keeping honor with me. Mirza is truth, as God is God. From his hand will I receive her in Constantinople'"

-

"O my Lord"-

"Peace, peace! The night wanes, and you have to return. Of what was I speaking? Oh, yes"-

"But hear me, my Lord. At the risk of your displeasure I must speak."

"What is it?"

"In her presence my heart is always like to burst, yet, as I am to be judged in the last great day, I have kept faith with my Lord. Once she thanked me-it was after I offered myself to the lion-O Heaven! how nearly I lost my honor! Oh, the agony of that silence! The anguish of that remembrance! I have kept the faith, my Lord. But day by day now the will to keep it grows weaker. All that holds me steadfast is my position in Constantinople. What am I there?"

The Count buried his face in his hands, and through the links in his surcoat the tremor which shook his body was apparent.

Mahommed waited.

"What am I there? Having come to see the goodness of the Emperor, I must run daily to betray him. I am a Christian; yet as Judas sold his Master, I am under compact to sell my religion. I love a noble woman, yet am pledged to keep her safely, and deliver her to another. O my Lord, my Lord! This cannot go on. Shame is a vulture, and it is tearing me-my heart bleeds in its beak. Release me, or give me to death. If you love me, release me."

"Poor Mirza!"

"My Lord, I am not afraid."

Mahommed struck the table violently, and his eyes glittered. "That ever one should think I loved a coward! Yet more intolerable, that he whom I have called brother should know me so little! Can it be, O Mirza, can it be, you tell me these things imagining them new to me? ... Let me have done. What we are saying would have become us ten years ago, not now. It is unmanly. I had a purpose in sending for you.... Your mission in Constantinople ends in the morning at four o'clock. In other words, O Mirza, the condition passes from preparation for war with the Gabour to war. Observe now. You are a fighting man-a knight of skill and courage. In the rencounters to which I am going-the sorties, the assaults, the duels single and in force, the exchanges with all arms, bow, arbalist, guns small and great, the mines and countermines-you cannot stay out. You must fight. Is it not so?"

Corti's head arose, his countenance brightened.

"My Lord, I fear I run forward of your words-forgive me."

"Yes, give ear.... The question now is, whom will you fight-me or the Gabour?"

"O my Lord"-

"Be quiet, I say. The issue is not whether you love me less. I prefer you give him your best service."

"How, my Lord?"

"I am not speaking in contempt, but with full knowledge of your superiority with weapons-of the many of mine who must go down before you. And that you may not be under restraint of conscience or arm-tied in the melee, I not only conclude your mission, but release you from every obligation to me."

"Every obligation!"

"I know my words, Emir, yet I will leave nothing uncertain.... You will go back to the city free of every obligation to me-arm-free, mind-free. Be a Christian, if you like. Send me no more despatches advisory of the Emperor"-

"And the Princess Irene, my Lord?"

Mahommed smiled at the Count's eagerness.

"Have patience, Mirza.... Of the moneys had from me, and the properties heretofore mine in trust, goods, horses, arms, armor, the galley and its crew, I give them to you without an accounting. You cannot deliver them to me or dispose of them, except with an explanation which would weaken your standing in Blacherne, if not undo you utterly. You have earned them."

Corti's face reddened.

"With all my Lord's generosity, I cannot accept this favor. Honor"-

"Silence, Emir, and hear me. I have never been careless of your honor. When you set out for Italy, preparatory to the mission at Constantinople, you owed me duty, and there was no shame in the performance; but now-so have the changes wrought-that which was honorable to Mirza the Emir is scandalous to Count Corti. After four o'clock you will owe me no duty; neither will you be in my service. From that hour Mirza, my falcon, will cease to be. He will have vanished. Or if ever I know him more, it will be as Count Corti, Christian, stranger, and enemy."

"Enemy-my Lord's enemy? Never!"

The Count protested with extended arms.

"Yes, circumstances will govern. And now the Princess Irene."

Mahommed paused; then, summoning his might of will, and giving it expression in a look, he laid a forcible hand on the listener's shoulder.

"Of her now.... I have devised a promotion for you, Emir. After to-night we will be rivals."

Corti was speechless-he could only stare.

"By the rose-door of Paradise-the only oath fit for a lover-or, as more becoming a knight, by this sword of Solomon, Emir, I mean the rivalry to be becoming and just. I have an advantage of you. With women rank and riches are as candles to moths. On the other side your advantage is double; you are a Christian, and may be in her eyes day after day. And not to leave you in mean condition, I give you the moneys and property now in your possession; not as a payment-God forbid!-but for pride's sake-my pride. Mahommed the Sultan may not dispute with a knight who has only a sword."

"I have estates in Italy."

"They might as well be in the moon. I shall enclose Constantinople before you could arrange with the Jews, and have money enough to buy a feather for your cap. If this were less true, comes then the argument: How can you dispose of the properties in hand, and quiet the gossips in the Gabour's palace? 'Where are your horses?' they will ask. What answer have you? 'Where your galley?' Answer. 'Where your Mohammedan crew?' Answer."

The Count yielded the debate, saying: "I cannot comprehend my Lord. Such thing was never heard of before."

"Must men be restrained because the thing they wish to do was never heard of before? Shall I not build a mosque with five minarets because other builders stopped with three? ... To the sum of it all now. Christian or Moslem, are you willing to refer our rivalry for the young woman to God?"

"My wonder grows with listening to my Lord."

"Nay, this surprises you because it is new. I have had it in mind for months. It did not come to me easily. It demanded self-denial-something I am unused to.... Here it is-I am willing to call Heaven in, and let it decide whether she shall be mine or yours-this lily of Paradise whom all men love at sight. Dare you as much?"

The soldier spirit arose in the Count.

"Now or then, here or there, as my Lord may appoint. I am ready. He has but to name his champion."

"I protest. The duel would be unequal. As well match a heron and a hawk. There is a better way of making our appeal. Listen.... The walls of Constantinople have never succumbed to attack. Hosts have dashed against them, and fled or been lost. It may be so with me; but I will march, and in my turn assault them, and thou defending with thy best might. If I am beaten, if I retire, be the cause of failure this or that, we-you and I, O Mirza-will call it a judgment of Heaven, and the Princess shall be yours; but if I success and enter the city, it shall be a judgment no less, and then"-Mahommed's eyes were full of fire-"then"-

"What then, my Lord?"

"Thou shalt see to her safety in the last struggle, and conduct her to Sancta Sophia, and there deliver her to me as ordered by God."

Corti was never so agitated. He turned pale and red-he trembled visibly.

Mahommed asked mockingly: "Is it Mirza I am treating with, or Count Corti? Are Christians so unwilling to trust God?"

"But, my Lord, it is a wager you offer me."

"Call it so."

"And its conditions imply slavery for the Princess. Change them, my Lord-allow her to be consulted and have her will, be the judgment this or that."

Mahommed clinched his hands.

"Am I a brute? Did ever woman lay her head on my breast perforce?"

The Count replied, firmly:

"Such a condition would be against us both alike."

The Sultan struggled with himself a moment.

"Be it so," he rejoined. "The wager is my proposal, and I will go through with it. Take the condition, Emir. If I win, she shall come to me of her free will or not at all."

"A wife, my Lord?"

"In my love first, and in my household first-my Sultana."

The animation which then came to the Count was wonderful. He kissed Mahommed's hand.

"Now has my Lord outdone himself in generosity. I accept. In no other mode could the issue be made so absolutely a determination of Heaven."

Mahommed arose.

"We are agreed.-The interview is finished.-Ali is waiting for you."

He replaced the cover on the box containing the collar and the half-boots.

"I will send these to the Countess your mother; for hereafter you are to be to me Ugo, Count Corti.... My falcon hath cast its jess and hood. Mirza is no more. Farewell Mirza."

Corti was deeply moved. Prostrating himself, he arose, and replied:

"I go hence more my Lord's lover than ever. Death to the stranger who in my presence takes his name in vain."

As he was retiring, Mahommed spoke again:

"A word, Count.... In what we are going to, the comfort and safety of the Princess Irene may require you to communicate with me. You have ready wit for such emergencies. Leave me a suggestion."

Corti reflected an instant.

"The signal must proceed from me," he said. "My Lord will pitch his tent in sight"-

"By Solomon, and this his sword, yes! Every Gabour who dares look over the wall shall see it while there is a hill abiding."

The Count bowed.

"I know my Lord, and give him this-God helping me, I will make myself notorious to the besiegers as he will be to the besieged. If at any time he sees my banderole, or if it be reported to him, let him look if my shield be black; if so, he shall come himself with a shield the color of mine, and place himself in my view. My Lord knows I make my own arrows. If I shoot one black feathered, he must pick it up. The ferrule will be of hollow lead covering a bit of scrip."

"Once more, Count Corti, the issue is with God. Good night."

Traversing the passage outside the door, the Count met the Prince of India.

"An hour ago I would have entitled you Emir: but now"-the Prince smiled while speaking-"I have stayed to thank Count Corti for his kindness to my black friend Nilo."

"Your servant?"

"My friend and ally-Nilo the King.... If the Count desires to add to the obligation, he will send the royal person to me with Ali when he returns to-night."

"I will send him."

"Thanks, Count Corti."

The latter lingered, gazing into the large eyes and ruddy face, expecting at least an inquiry after Lael. He received merely a bow, and the words: "We will meet again."

Night was yet over the city, when Ali, having landed the Count, drew out of the gate with Nilo. The gladness of the King at being restored to his master can be easily fancied.

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