"A wonderful prince no doubt; but I asked not of him. The plate, man—what of this plate? If nothing, then give way to Joqard."
"There are fools and fools—that is, there are plain fools and wise fools. The wise fool answering the plain fool, is always more particular with his premises than his argument."
The laugh was with the hamari again; after which he continued: "So, having done with explanation, now to satisfy you."
From the breast of his gown, he brought forth a piece of bronze considerably less than the plate on the gate, but in every other respect its counterpart.
"See you this?" he said, holding the bronze up to view.
There was quick turning from plate to plate, and the conclusion was as quick.
"They are the same, but what of it?"
"This—Joqard and I went up one day and danced for the Prince, and at the end he dismissed us, giving me a red silk purse fat with gold pieces, and to Joqard this passport. Mark you now. The evil minded used to beat us with cudgels and stones—I mean among the Turk—but coming to a town now, I tie this to Joqard's collar, and we have welcome. We eat and drink, and are given good quarters, and sped from morning to morning without charge."
"There is some magic in the plate, then?"
"No," said the hamari, "unless there is magic in the love of a people for the Prince to be their ruler. It certifies Joqard and I are of Prince Mahommed's friends, and that is enough for Turks; and the same yonder. By the sign, I know this gate, these grounds, and the owner of them are in his protection. But," said the bear-keeper, changing his tone, "seeing one civil answer deserves another, when was Prince Mahommed here?"
"In person? Never."
"Oh, he must have been."
"Why do you say so?"
"Because of the brass plate yonder."
"What does it prove?"
"Ah, yes!" the man answered laughingly. "Joqard and I pick up many odd things, and meet a world of people—don't we, fellow?" Another furious jerk of the leading strap brought a whine from the bear, "But it is good for us. We teach school as we go; and you know, my friend, for every solidus its equivalent in noumia is somewhere."
"I will give you a noumia, if you will give me an answer."
"A bargain—a bargain, with witnesses!"
Then after a glance into the faces around, as if summoning attention to the offer, the hamari proceeded.
"Listen. I say the brass up there proves Prince Mahommed was here in person. Wishing to notify his people that he had taken in his care everything belonging to this property, the owner included, the Prince put his signature to the proclamation."
"Yes—you may call it plain brass, if you prefer; none the less the writing on it is Mahommed: and because such favors must bear his name on them, they are reserved for his giving. No other man, except the great Sultan, his father, would bestow one of them. Joqard had his from the Prince's hand directly; wherefore—I hope, friend, you have the noumia ready—the brass on this post must have been fixed there by the Prince with his own hand."
The fishermen were satisfied; and it was wonderful how interesting the safeguard then became to them. By report they knew Mahommed the prospective successor of the terrible Amurath; they knew him a soldier conspicuous in many battles; and from the familiar principle by which we admire or dread those possessed of qualities unlike and superior to our own, their ideas and speculations concerning him were wild and generally harsh. Making no doubt now that he had really been to the gate, they asked themselves, What could have been his object? To look at the plate was next thing to looking at the man. Even Sergius partook of the feeling. To get a better view, he shifted his position, and was beset by inquietudes not in the understanding of the fishermen.
The Princess Irene, her property and dependents, were subjects of protection by the Moslem; that much was clear; but did she know the fact? Had she seen the Prince? Then the Hegumen's criticism upon the persistence with which she kept her residence here, a temptation to the brutalized unbeliever on the other shore, derived a point altogether new.
Sergius turned away, and passed into the well-tended grounds. While too loyal to the little mother, as he tenderly called the Princess, to admit a suspicion against her, with painful clearness, he perceived the opportunity the affair offered her enemies for the most extreme accusations; and he resolved to speak to her, and, if necessary, to remonstrate.
Traversing the shelled roadway up to the portico of the palace, he looked back through the red pavilion, and caught a glimpse of Joqard performing before a merry group of boys and elders male and female.
The love of all things living which was so positively a trait of character with the Princess Irene was never stinted in her dealings with her own country folk. On this occasion her whole establishment at Therapia was accorded her guests; yet, while they wandered at will merry-making through the gardens, and flashed their gay colors along the side and from the summit of the promontory, they seemed to have united in holding the palace in respectful reserve. None of them, without a special request, presumed to pass the first of the steps leading up into the building.
When Sergius, approaching from the outer gate, drew nigh the front of the palace, he was brought to a stop by a throng of men and women packed around a platform the purpose of which was declared by its use. It was low, but of generous length and breadth, and covered with fresh sail-cloth; at each corner a mast had been raised, with yard-arms well squared, and dressed profusely in roses, ferns, and acacia fronds. On a gallery swung to the base of the over-pending portico, a troupe of musicians were making the most of flute, cithara, horn, and kettle-drum, and not vainly, to judge from the flying feet of the dancers in possession of the boards.
Lifting his eyes above the joyous exhibition, he beheld the carven capitals of the columns, tied together with festoonery of evergreens, and relieved by garlands of shining flowers, and above the musicians, under a canopy shading her from the meridian sun, the Princess Irene herself. A bright carpet hanging down the wall enriched the position chosen by her, and in the pleasant shade, surrounded by young women, she sat with uncovered head and face, delighted with the music and the dancing—delighted that it was in her power to bring together so many souls to forget, though so briefly, the fretting of hard conditions daily harder growing. None knew better than she the rapidity of the national decadence.
It was not long until the young hostess noticed Sergius, taller of his high hat and long black gown; and careless as usual of the conventionalities, she arose, and beckoned to him with her fan; and the people, seeing whom she thus honored, opened right and left, and with good-will made way for him. Upon his coming her attendants drew aside—all but one, to whom for the moment he gave but a passing look.
The Princess received him seated. The youthful loveliness of her countenance seemed refined by the happiness she was deriving from the spectacle before her. He took the hand she extended him, kissed it respectfully, with only a glance at the simple but perfected Greek of her costume, and immediately the doubts, and fears, and questions, and lectures in outline he had brought with him from the city dropped out of mind. Suspicion could not look at her and live.
"Welcome, Sergius," she said, with dignity. "I was afraid you would not come to-day."
"Why not? If my little mother's lightest suggestions are laws with me, what are her invitations?"
For the first time he had addressed her by the affectionate term, and the sound was startling. The faintest flush spread over her cheek, admonishing him that the familiarity had not escaped attention. Greatly to his relief, she quietly passed the matter.
"You were at the Pannychides?" she asked.
"Yes, till daybreak."
"I thought so, and concluded you would be too weary to see us to-day. The Mystery is tedious."
"It might become so if too frequently celebrated. As it was, I shall not forget the hillside, and the multitude of frocked and cowled figures kneeling in the dim red light of the torches. The scene was awful."
"Did you see the Emperor?"
She put the question in a low tone.
"No," he returned. "His Majesty sent for our Hegumen to come to the Chapel. The good man took me with him, his book and torch bearer; but when we arrived, the Emperor had passed in and closed the door, and I could only imagine him on his knees alone in the room, except as the relics about him were company."
"How unspeakably dismal!" she said with a shudder, adding in sorrowful reflection, "I wish I could help him, for he is a prince with a tender conscience; but there is no way—at least Heaven does not permit me to see anything for him in my gift but prayer."
Sergius followed her sympathetically, and was surprised when she continued, the violet gray of her eyes changing into subtle fire. "A sky all cloud; the air void of hope; enemies mustering everywhere on land; the city, the court, the Church rent by contending factions—behold how a Christian king, the first one in generations, is plagued! Ah, who can interpret for Providence? And what a miracle is prophecy!"
Thereupon the Princess bethought herself, and cast a hurried glance out over the garden.
"No, no! If these poor souls can forget their condition and be happy, why not we? Tell me good news, Sergius, if you have any—only the good. But see! Who is he making way through the throng yonder? And what is it he is leading?"
The transition of feeling, though sudden and somewhat forced, was successful; the Princess' countenance again brightened; and turning to follow her direction, Sergius observed Lael, who had not fallen back with the other attendants. The girl had been a modest listener; now there was a timid half smile on her face, and a glistening welcome in her eyes. His gaze stopped short of the object which had inspired his hostess with such interest, and dropped to the figured carpet at the guest's feet; for the feeling the recognition awakened was clouded with the taunt Demedes had flung at him in the hall of the monastery, and he questioned the rightfulness of this appearance. If she were not the daughter of the Prince of India, she was an—impostor was the word in his mind.
"I was expecting you," she said to him, artlessly.
Sergius raised his face, and was about to speak, when the Princess started from her seat, and moved to the low balustrade of the portico.
"Come," she called, "come, and tell me what this is."
Sergius left a friendly glance with Lael.
Where the roadway from the gate led up to the platform an opening had been made in the close wall of spectators attracted by the music and dancing. In the opening, the hamari was slowly coming forward, his turban awry, his brown face overrun and shining with perspiration, his sharp gypsy eyes full of merriment. With the leading strap over a shoulder, he tugged at Joqard. Sergius laughed to see the surprise of the men and women, and at the peculiar yells and screams with which they struggled to escape. But everybody appearing in good nature, he said to the Princess: "Do not be concerned. A Turk or Persian with a trained bear. I passed him at the gate."
He saw the opportunity of speaking about the brass plate on the post, and while debating whether to avail himself of it, the hamari caught sight of the party at the edge of the portico, stopped, surveyed them, then prostrated himself in the abjectest Eastern manner. The homage was of course to the Princess—so at least the assemblage concluded; and jumping to the idea that the bear-keeper had been employed by her for their divertisement, each man in the company resolved himself into an ally and proceeded to assist him. The musicians were induced to suspend their performance, and the dancers to vacate the platform; then, any number of hands helping them up, Joqard and his master were promoted to the boards, sole claimants of attention and favor.
The fellow was not in the least embarrassed. He took position on the platform in front of the Princess, and again saluted her Orientally, and with the greatest deliberation, omitting no point of the prostration. Bringing the bear to a sitting posture with folded paws, he bowed right and left to the spectators, and made a speech in laudation of Joqard. His grimaces and gesticulation kept the crowd in a roar; when addressing the Princess, his manner was respectful, even courtierly. Joqard and he had travelled the world over; they had been through the Far East, and through the lands of the Frank and Gaul; they had crossed Europe from Paris to the Black Sea, and up to the Crimea; they had appeared before the great everywhere—Indian Rajahs, Tartar Khans, Persian Shahs, Turkish Sultans; there was no language they did not understand. The bear, he insisted, was the wisest of animals, the most susceptible of education, the most capable and willing in service. This the ancients understood better than the moderns, for in recognition of his superiority they had twice exalted him to the Heavens, and in both instances near the star that knew no deviation. The hamari was a master of amplification, and his anecdotes never failed their purpose.
"Now," he said, "I do not care what the subject of discourse may be; one thing is true—my audience is always composed of believers and unbelievers; and as between them"—here he addressed himself to the Princess—"as between them, O Most Illustrious of women, my difficulty has been to determine which class is most to be feared. Every philosopher must admit there is quite as much danger in the man who withholds his faith when it ought to be given, as in his opposite who hurries to yield it without reason. My rule as an auditor is to wait for demonstration. So"—turning to the assemblage—"if here any man or woman doubts that the bear is the wisest of animals, and Joqard the most learned and accomplished of bears, I will prove it." Then Joqard was called on.
"For attend, O Illustrious Princess!—and look ye, O men and women, pliers of net and boat!—look ye all! Now shall Joqard himself speak for Joqard."
The hamari began talking to the bear in a jargon utterly unintelligible to his hearers, though they fell to listening with might and main, and were silent that they might hear. Nothing could have been more earnest than his communications, whatever they were; at times he put an arm about the brute's neck; at times he whispered in its ear; and in return it bowed and grunted assent, or growled and shook its head in refusal, always in the most knowing manner. In this style, to appearance, he was telling what he wanted done. Then retaining the leading strap, the master stepped aside, and Joqard, left to himself, proceeded to prove his intelligence and training by facing the palace, bringing his arms overhead, and falling forward. Everybody understood the honor intended for the Princess; the bystanders shouted; the attendants on the portico clapped their hands, for indeed never in their remembrance had the prostration been more profoundly executed. Arising nimbly the performer wheeled about, reared on his hind feet, clasped his paws on his head, and acknowledged the favor of the commonalty by resolving himself into a great fur ball, and rolling a somersault. The acclamation became tumultuous. One admirer ran off and returned with an armful of wreaths and garlands, and presently Joqard was wearing them royally.
With excellent judgment the hamari proceeded next to hurry the exhibition, passing from one trick to another almost without pause until the wrestling match was reached. This has been immemorially the reliable point in performances of the kind he was giving, but he introduced it in a manner of his own.
Standing by the edge of the platform, as the friend and herald of Joqard, he first loudly challenged the men before him, every one ambitious of honor and renown, to come up and try a fall; and upon their hanging back, he berated them. Wherever a tall man stood observable above the level of heads, he singled him out. Failing to secure a champion, he finally undertook the contest himself.
"Ho, Joqard," he cried, while tying the leading strap around the brute's neck, "thou fearest nothing. Thy dam up in the old Caucasian cave was great of heart, and, like her, thou wouldst not quail before Hercules, were he living. But thou shalt not lick thy paws and laugh, thinking Hercules hath no descendant."
Retiring a few steps he tightened the belt about his waist, and drew his leathern jacket closer.
"Get ready!" he cried.
Joqard answered promptly and intelligently by standing up and facing him, and in sign of satisfaction with the prospect of an encounter so to his taste, he lolled the long red tongue out of his jaws. Was he licking his chops in anticipation of a feast or merely laughing? The beholders became quiet; and Sergius for the first time observed how very low in stature the hamari seemed.
"Look out, look out! O thou with the north star in the tip of thy tail! I am coming—for the honor of mankind, I am coming."
They danced around each other watching for an opening. "Aha! Now thou thinkest to get the advantage. Thou art proud of thy fame, and cunning, but I am a man. I have been in many schools. Look out!"
The hamari leaped in and with both hands caught the strap looped around Joqard's neck; at the same time he was himself caught in Joqard's ready arms. The growl with which the latter received the attack was angry, and lent the struggle much more than a mere semblance of danger. Round and about they were borne; now forward, then back; sometimes they were likely to tumble from the boards. The hamari's effort was to choke Joqard into submission; Joqard's was to squeeze the breath out of the hamari's body; and they both did their parts well.
After some minutes the man's exertions became intermittent. A little further on the certainty of triumph inspired Joqard to fierce utterances; his growls were really terrible, and he hugged so mercilessly his opponent grew livid in the face. The women and children began to cry and scream, and many of the men shouted in genuine alarm: "See, see! The poor fellow is choking to death!" The excitement and fear extended to the portico; some of the attendants there, unable to endure the sight, fled from it. Lael implored Sergius to save the hamari. Even the Princess was undecided whether the acting was real or affected.
Finally the crisis came. The man could hold out no longer; he let go his grip on the strap, and, struggling feebly to loose his body from the great black arms, shouted hoarsely: "Help, help!" As if he had not strength to continue the cry, he threw his hands up, and his head back gasping.
The Princess Irene covered her eyes. Sergius stepped over the balustrade; but before he could get further, a number of men were on the stage making to the rescue. And seeing them come, the hamari laid one hand on the strap, and with the other caught the tongue protruding from Joqard's open jaws; as a further point in the offensive so suddenly resumed, he planted a foot heavily on one of his antagonist's. Immediately the son of the proud Caucasian dam was flat on the boards simulating death.
Then everybody understood the play, and the merriment was heightened by the speech the hamari found opportunity to make his rescuers before they could recover from their astonishment and break up the tableau they formed. The Princess, laughing through her tears, flung the victor some gold pieces, and Lael tossed her fan to him. The prostrations with which he acknowledged the favors were marvels to behold.
By and by, quiet being restored, Joqard was roused from his trance, and the hamari, calling the musicians to strike up, concluded the performance with a dance.