Read THE BOOK OF NAY - CHAPTER VII of The Life and Death of Richard Yea-and-Nay, free online book, by Maurice Hewlett, on ReadCentral.com.

THE CHAPTER OF THE SACRIFICE ON LEBANON; ALSO CALLED CASSANDRA

From the haven at Acre to the bill of Tortosa is two days’ sailing with a fair wind.  Thence, climbing the mountains, you reach Musse in four days more, if the passes are open.  If they are shut you do not reach it at all.  High on Lebanon, above the frozen gorge where Orontes and Leontes, rivers of Syria, separate in their courses; above the terrace of cedars, above Shurky the clouded mountain, lies a deep green valley sentinelled on all sides by snow peaks and by the fortresses upon their tops.  In the midst of that, among cedars and lines of cypress trees, is the white palace of the Lord of the Assassins, as big as a town.  A man may climb from pass to pass of Lebanon without striking upon the place; sighting it from some dangerous crag, he may yet never approach it.  None visit the Old Man of Musse but those who court Death in one of his shapes; and to such he never denies it.  Dazzling snow-curtains, black hanging-woods, sheer walls of granite, frame it in:  looking up on all sides you see the soaring pikes; and deep under a coffer-lid of blue it lies, greener than an emerald, a valley of easy sleep.  There in the great chambers young men lie dreaming of women, and sleek boys stand about the doorways with cups of madness held close to their breasts.  They are eaters and drinkers of hemp, these people, which causes them to sleep much and wake up mad.  Then, when the Old Man calls one or another and says, Go down the mountains into the cities of the seaboard, and when thou seest such-a-one, kiss him and strike deep — he goes out then and there with fixed eyeballs, and never turns them about until he finds whom he seeks, nor ever shuts them until his work is done.  This is the custom of Musse in the enclosed valley of Lebanon.

Thither on mules from Tortosa came El Safy, leading the Abbot Milo and Jehane, and brought them easily through all the defiles to that castle on a spur which is called Mont-Ferrand, but in the language of the Saracens, Barin.  From that height they looked down upon the domes and gardens of Musse, and knew that half their work was done.

What immediately followed was due to the insistence of El Safy, who said that if Jehane was not suitably attired and veiled she would fail of her mission.  Jehane did not like this.

‘It is not the custom of our women to be veiled, El Safy,’ she said, ‘except at the hour when they are to be married.’

‘And it is not the custom of our men,’ replied the Assassin, ’to choose unveiled women.  And this for obvious reasons.’

‘What are your reasons, my son?’ asked the abbot.

‘I will tell you,’ said El Safy.  ’If a man should come to our master with a veiled woman, saying, My lord, I have here a woman faced like the moon, and more melting than the peach that drops from the wall, the Old Man would straightway conceive what manner of beauty this was, and picture it more glorious than the truth could ever be; and then the reality would climb up to meet his imagining.  But otherwise if he saw her barefaced before him; for eyesight is destructive to mind-sight if it precede it.  The eye must be servant.  So then he, dreaming of the veiled treasure, weds her and finds that she is just what was predicted of her by the merchant.  For women and other delights, as we understand the affair, are according to our zest; and our zest is a thing of the mind’s devising, added unto desire as the edge of a sword is superadded to the sword.  So the fair woman must certainly be veiled.’

‘The saying hath meat in it,’ said the abbot; ’but here is no question of merchants, nor of marriage, pardieu.’

’If there is no question of marriage, of what is there question in this company?’ asked El Safy.  ’Let me tell you that two questions only concern the Old Man of Musse.’

Jehane, who had stood pouting, with a very high head, throughout this little colloquy, said nothing; but now she allowed El Safy his way.  So she was dressed.

They put on her a purple vest, thickly embroidered with gold and pearls, underdrawers of scarlet silk, and gauze trousers (such as Eastern women wear) of many folds.  Her hair was plaited and braided with pearls, a broad silk girdle tied about her waist.  Over all was put a thick white veil, heavily fringed with gold.  Round her ankles they put anklets of gold, with little bells on them which tinkled as she walked; last, scarlet slippers.  They would have painted her face and eyebrows, but that El Safy decided that this was not at all necessary.  When all was done she turned to one of her women and demanded her baby.  El Safy, to Milo’s surprise, made no demur.  Then they put her in a gold cage on a mule’s back, and so let her down by a steep path into the region of birds and flowering trees.  There was very little conversation, except when the abbot hit his foot against a rock.  In the valley they passed through a thick cedar grove, and so came to the first of four gates of approach.

Half a score handsome boys, bare-legged and in very short white tunics, led them from hall to hall, even to the innermost, where the Old Man kept his state.  The first hall was of cedar painted red; the second was of green wood, with a fountain in the middle; the third was deep blue, and the fourth colour of fire.  But the next hall, which was long and very lofty, was white like snow, except for the floor, which had a blood-red carpet; and there, on a white throne, sat the Old Man of Musse, himself as blanched as a swan, robed all in white, white-bearded; and about him his Assassins as colourless as he.

The ten boys knelt down and crossed their arms upon their bosoms; El Safy fell flat upon his face, and crawling so, like a worm, came at length to the steps of the throne.  The Old Man let him lie while he blinked solemnly before him.  Not the Pope himself, as Milo had once seen him, hoar with sanctity, looked more remotely, more awfully pure than this king of murder, snowy upon his blood-red field.  What gave closer mystery was that the light came strange and milky through agate windows, and that when the Old Man spoke it was in a dry, whispering voice which, with the sound of a murmur in the forest, was in tune with the silence of all the rest.  El Safy stood up, and was rigid.  There ensued a passionless flow of question and answer.  The Old Man murmured to the roof, scarcely moving his lips; El Safy answered by rote, not moving any other muscles but his jaw’s.  As for the Assassins, they stayed squat against the walls, as if they had been dead men, buried sitting.

At a sign from El Safy the abbot with veiled Jehane came down the hail, and stood before the white spectre on his throne.  Jehane saw that this was really a man.  There was a faint tinge of red at his nostrils, his eyes were yellowish and very bright, his nails coloured red.  The shape of his head was that of an old bird.  She judged him bald under his high cap; but his beard came below his breast-bone.  When he opened his mouth to speak she observed that his teeth were the whitest part of him, and his lips rather grey.  He did not seem to look at her, but said to the abbot, ’Tell me why you have come into my country, being a Frank and a Christian dog; and why you have brought with you this fair woman.’

‘My lord,’ said the abbot, after clearing his throat, ’we are lovers and servants of the great king whom you call the Melek Richard, a lion indeed in the paths of the Moslems, who makes bitter war upon your enemy the Soldan; and in defence of him we are come.  For it appears that a servant of your lordship’s, called Giafaribn Mulk, is now in Acre, which is King Richard’s good town, conspiring with the Marquess the death of our lord.’

‘It is the first I have heard of it,’ said the Old Man.  ’He was sent for a different purpose, but his hand is otherwise free.  What else have you to say?’

‘Why, this, my lord,’ said the abbot, ’that our lord the King has too many enemies not declared, who compass his destruction while he compasses their soul’s health.  This is so shameful that we think it no time for the King’s lovers to be asleep.  Therefore I, with this woman, who, of all persons living in the world, is most dear to him (as he to her), have come to warn your lordship of the Marquess his abominable design, in the sure hope that your lordship will lend it no favour.  King Richard, we believe, is besieging the Holy City, and therefore (no doubt) hath the countenance of Almighty God.  But if the devil (who loves the Marquess, and is sure to have him) may reckon your lordship also upon his side, we doubt that he may prevail.’

‘And do you also think,’ asked the Old Man, scarcely audible, ’That the Melek Richard will thank you for these precautions of yours?’

‘My lord,’ said Milo, ’we seek not his thanks, nor his good opinion, but his safety.

‘It is one thing to seek safety,’ said the Old Man, ’but another thing to find or keep it.  Get you back to the doorway.’

So they did, and the lord of the place sat for a long time in a stare, not moving hand or foot.  Now it happened that the child in Jehane’s arm woke up, and began to stretch itself, and whimper, and nozzle about for food.  Jehane tried to hush it by rocking herself to and fro gently on one foot.  The abbot, horrified, frowned and shook his head; but Jehane, who knew but one lord now Richard was away, took no notice.  Presently young Fulke set up a howl which sounded piercing in that still place.  Milo began to say his prayers; but no one moved except Jehane, whose course, to her own mind, was clear.  She put the great veil back over her head, and bared her beauty; she unfastened the purple vest, and bared her bosom.  This she gave to the child’s searching mouth.  The free gesture, the bent head, the unconscious doing, made the act as lovely as the person.  Fulke murmured his joy, and Jehane looking presently up saw the Old Man’s solemn eyes blinking at her.  This did not disconcert her very much, for she thought, ’If he is correctly reported he has seen a mother before now.’

It might seem that he had or had not:  his action reads either way.  After three minutes’ blinking he sent an old Assassin (not El Safy) down the hall to the door.

‘Thus,’ he reported, ’saith the Old Man of Musse, Lord of the Assassins.  Tell the Sheik of the Nazarenes that the Marquess of Montferrat shall come up and go down, and after that come up no more.  Also, let the Sheik depart in peace and with all speed, lest I repent and put him suddenly to death.  As for the fair woman, she must remain among my ladies, and become my dutiful wife, as a ransom price.’

The abbot, as one thunderstruck, raised his hands on high.  ’O sack of sin!’ he groaned, ’O dross for the melting-pot!  O unspeakable sacrifice!’ But Jehane, gravely smiling, checked him.  ’Why, Lord Abbot, is any sacrifice too great for King Richard?’ she asked, gently reproving him.  ’Nay, go, my father; I shall do very well.  I am not at all afraid.  Now do what I shall tell you.  Kiss the hand of my lord Richard from me when you see him, bidding him remember the vows we made to each other on the day at Fontevrault when he took up the Cross, and again before the lifted Host at Cahors.  And to my lady Queen Berengere say this, that from this day forth I am wife of a man, and stand not between her bed and the King, as God knows I have never meant to stand.  Kiss me now, my father, and pray diligently for me.’  He tells us that he did, and records the day long ago when he had first kissed the poor girl in the chapel of the Dark Tower, the day when, as she hoped, she had taught her great lover to tread upon her heart.

At this time a great black, the chief of the eunuchs, came and touched her on the shoulder.  ‘Whither now, friend?’ said Jehane.  He pointed the way, being a deaf-mute.  ‘Lead,’ said she; ‘I will follow.’  And so she did.

She turned no more her head, nor did she go with it lowered, but carried it cheerfully, as if her business was good.  The black led her by many winding ways to a garden filled with orange-trees, and across this to a bronze door.  There stood two more blacks on guard, with naked swords in their hands.  The eunuch struck twice on the lintel.  The door was opened from within, and they entered.  An old lady dressed in black came to meet them; to her the eunuch handed Jehane, made a reverence, and retired.  They shut the bronze doors.  What more?  After the bath, and putting on of habits more sumptuous than she had ever heard tell of, she was taken by slaves into the Hall of Felicity.  There, among the heavy-eyed languid women, Jehane sat herself staidly down, and suckled her child.