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

THE CHAPTER CALLED A LATERE

The Old Man of Musse, Lord of all the Assassins, descendant of Ali, Fulness of Light, Master of them that eat hemp, and many things beside, wedded Jehane and made her his principal wife.  He valued in her, apart from her bodily perfections, her discretion, obedience, good sense, and that extraordinary sort of pride which makes its possessor humble, so inset it is; too proud, you may say, to give pride a thought.  Esteeming her at this price, it is not remarkable if she came to be his only wife.

This was the manner of her life.  When her husband left her, which was very early in the morning, she generally slept for an hour, then rose and went to the bath.  Her boy was brought to her in the pavilion of the Garden of Fountains; she spent two hours or more with him, teaching him his prayers, the honour of his father, love and duty to his mother, respect for the long purposes of God.  At ten o’clock she broke her fast, and afterwards her women sat with her at needlework; and one would sing, or one tell a good tale; or, leave being given, they would gossip among themselves, with a look ever at her for approval or (what rarely happened) disapproval.  There was not a soul among her slaves who did not love her, nor one who did not fear her.  She talked no more than she had ever done, but she judged no less.  Many times a day the Old Man sent for her, or sometimes came to her room, to discuss his affairs.  He never found her out of humour, dull, perverse, or otherwise than well-disposed to all his desires.  Far from that, every Friday he gave thanks in the mosque for the gift of such an admirable wife — grave, discreet, pious, amorous, chaste, obedient, nimble, complaisant, and most beautiful, as he hereby declared that he found her.  Being a man of the greatest possible experience, this was high praise; nor had he been slow in making up his mind that she was to be trusted.  He was about to prove his deed as good as his opinion.

Word was brought her on a day, as she sat in the harem with her boy on her knee, singing to herself and him some winding song of France, that this redoubtable lord of hers was waiting to see her in her chamber.  She put the child down and followed the eunuch.  Entering the room where the Old Man sat, she knelt down, as was customary, and kissed his knee.  He touched her bent head.  ‘Rise up, my child,’ says he, ’sit with me for a little.  I have matters of concernment for you.’  She sat at once by his side; he took her hand and began to talk to her in this manner.

’It appears, Jehane, that I am something of a prophet.  Your late master, the Melek Richard, has fallen into the power of his enemies; he is now a prisoner of the Archduke’s on many charges:  first, the killing of your brother Eudo, Count of Saint-Pol; but that is a very trifling affair, which occurred, moreover, in fair battle.  Next, they accuse him — falsely, as you know — of the death of Montferrat.  We may have our own opinion about that.  But the prime matter, as I guess, is ransom, and whether those who wish him ill (not for what he has done to them, but for what he has not allowed them to do to him) will suffer him to be ransomed.  Now, what have you to say, my child?  I see that it affects you.’

Jehane was affected, but not as you might expect.  With great self-possession she had a very practical mind.  There were neither tears nor heart-beatings, neither panic nor flying of colours.  Her eyes sought the Old Man’s and remained steadily on them; her lips were firm and red.

‘What are you willing to do, sire?’ she asked him.  Sinan stroked his fine beard.

‘I can dispose of the business of Montferrat in a few lines,’ he said, considering.  ’More, I can reach the Melek and assure him of comfort.  What I cannot do so easily, though I admit no failure, mind, is to induce his enemies at home to allow of a ransom.’

‘I can do that,’ said Jehane, ‘if you will do the rest.’  The Old Man patted her cheek.

’It is not the custom of my nation to allow wives abroad.  You, moreover, are not of that nation.  How can I trust the Melek, who (I know) loves you?  How can I trust you, who (I know) love the Melek?’

‘Oh, sire,’ says Jehane, looking him full in the face, ’I came here because I loved my lord Richard; and when I have assured his safety I shall return here.’  She looked down, as she added — ’For the same reason, and for no other.’

‘I quite understand you, child,’ said the Old Man, and put his hand under her chin.  This made her blush, and brought up her face again quickly.

‘Dear sire,’ she said shyly, ’you are very kind to me.  If I had another reason for returning it would be that.’  Sinan kissed her.

‘And so it shall be, my dear,’ he assured her.  ’There is time enough.  You shall certainly go, due regard being had to my dignity, and your health, which is delicate just now.’

‘Have no fear for me, my lord,’ she said.  ‘I am very strong.’  He kissed her again, saying, ’I have never known a woman at once so beautiful and so strong.’

He wrote two letters, sealing them with his own signet and that of King Solomon.  To the Archduke he said curtly —

’To the Archduke Luitpold, Vetus de Monte sends greeting.  If the Melek Richard be any way let in the matter of his life and renown, I bid you take heed that as I served the Marquess of Montferrat, so also I shall serve your Serenity.’

But the Emperor demanded more civil advertisement:  he got a remarkably fine letter.

’To the most exalted man, Henry, by the grace of God Emperor of the Romans, happy, pious, ever august, the invincible Conqueror, Vetus de Monte, by the same great Chief of the Assassins, sends greeting with the kiss of peace.  Let your Celsitude make certain acquaintance with error in regard to the most illustrious person whom you have in hold.  Not that Melek Richard caused the death of the Marquess Conrad; but I, the Ancient, the Lord of Assassins, Fulness of Light, for good cause, namely to save my friend the same Melek from injurious death at the hands of the Marquess.  And him, the said Melek, I am resolved at all hazards to defend by means of the silent smiters who serve me.  So farewell; and may He protect your Celsitude whom we diversely worship.’

As with every business of the Old Man’s, preparations were soon and silently made.  In three or four days’ time Jehane strained the young Fulke to her bosom, took affectionate humble leave of her master, and left the green valley of Lebanon on her embassy.

She was sent down to the coast in the manner becoming the estate of a Sultan’s favourite wife.  She never set foot on the ground, never even saw it.  She was in a close-curtained litter, herself veiled to the eyes.  Sitting with her was a vast old Turkish woman, whom in the harem they called the Mother of Flowers.  Mules bore the litter, eunuchs on mules surrounded it.  On all sides, a third line of defence, rode the janissaries, hooded in white, on white Arabian horses.  So they came swiftly to Tortosa, whose lord, in strict alliance with him of Musse, little knew that in paying homage to the shrouded cage he was cap-in-hand to Jehane of Picardy.  Long galleys took up the burden of the mountain roads, dipped and furrowed across the AEgean, and touched land at Salonika.  Hence by relays of bearers Jehane was carried darkly to Marburg in Styria, where at last she saw the face of the sky.

They took her to the inn and unveiled her.  Then the chief of the eunuchs handed her a paper which he had written himself, being deprived of a tongue: — ’Madame, Fragrance of the Harem, Gulzareen (which is to say, Golden Rose), thus I am commanded by my dreadful master.  From this hour and place you are free to do what seems best to your wisdom.  The letters of our lord will be sent forward by the proper bearers of them, one to Gratz, where the Archduke watches the Melek, and one to the Emperor of the Romans, wherever he may be found.  In Gratz is he whom you seek.  This day six months I shall be here to attend your Sufficiency.’  He bowed three times, and went away.

‘Now, mother,’ said Jehane to the old duenna, ’do for me what I bid you, and quickly.  Get me brown juice for my skin, and a ragged kirtle and bodice, such as the Egyptians wear.  Give me money to line it, and then let me go.’  All this was done.  Jehane put on vile raiment which barely covered her, stained her fair face, neck, and arms brown, and let her hair droop all about her.  Then she went barefoot out, hugging herself against the cold, being three months gone with child, and took the road over barren moorland to Gratz.

She had not seen King Richard for nearly two years, at the thought of which thing and of him the hot blood leapt up, to thrust and tingle in her face.  She did not mean to see him now if she could help it, for she knew just how far she could withstand him; she would save him and then go back.  Thus she reasoned with herself as she trudged:  ’Jehane, ma mye, thou art wife now to a wise old man, who is good to thee, and has exalted thee above all his women.  Thou must have no lovers now.  Only save him, save him, save him, Lord Jesus, Lady Mary!’ She treated this as a prayer, and kept it very near her lips all the way to Gratz, except when she felt herself flush all over with the thought, ’School of God!  Is so great a king to be prayed for, as if he were a sick monk?’ Nevertheless, she prayed more than she flushed.  Nothing disturbed her; she slept in woods, in byres, in stackyards; bought what she needed for food, attracted no attention, and got no annoyance worthy the name.  At the closing in of the fifth day she saw the walls of the city rise above the black moors into the sky, and the towers above them.  The dome of a church, gilded, caught the dying sun’s eye; its towers were monstrous tall, round, and peaked with caps of green copper.  On the walls she counted seven other towers, heavy, squat, flat-roofed fortresses with huge battlements.  A great flag hung in folds, motionless about a staff.  All was a uniform dun, muffled in stormy sky, lowering, remote from knowledge, and alien.

But Jehane herself was of the North, and not impressionable.  Grey skies were familiar tents to her, moorlands roomy places, one heap of stones much like another.  But her heart beat high to know Richard half a league away; all her trouble was how she should find him in such a great town.  It was dusk when she reached it; they were about to shut the gates.  She let them, having seen that there were booths and hovels at the barriers, even a little church.  It was there she spent the night, huddled in a corner by the altar.

Dawn is a laggard in Styria.  She awoke before it was really light, and crept out, munching a crust.  The suburb was dead asleep, a little breeze ruffled the poplars, and blew wrinkles on the town ditch.  About and about the walls she went, peering up at their ragged edge, at the huge crumbling towers, at the storks on steep roofs.  ’Eh, Lord God, here lies in torment my lovely king!’ she cried to herself.  The keen breeze freshened, the cloud-wrack went racing westward; it left the sky clean and bare.  Out of the east came the red sun, and struck fire upon the dome of Saint Stanislas.  Out of a high window then came the sound of a man singing, a sharp strong voice, tremulous in the open notes.  She held her bosom as she heard —

     Al entrada del tems clar, eya! 
     Per joja recomencar, eya! 
     Vol la regina mostrar
     Qu’el’ es si amoroza.

The sun kindled her lifted face, filled her wet eyes with light, and glistened on her praying lips.

After that her duty was clear, as she conceived it.  She dared not attempt the tower:  that would reveal her to him.  But she could not leave it.  She must wait to learn the effect of her lord’s letter, wait to see the bearer of it:  here she would wait, where she could press the stones which bore up the stones pressed by Richard.  So she did, crouching on the earth by the wall, sheltered against the wind or the wet by either side of a buttress, getting her food sparingly from the booths at the gate, or of charity.  The townsmen of Gratz, hoarse-voiced touzleheads mostly, divined her to be an anchoress, a saint, or an unfortunate.  She was not of their country, for her hair was burnt yellow like a Lombard’s, and her eyes green; her face, tanned and searching, was like a Hungarian’s; they thought that she wove spells with her long hands.  On this account at first she was driven away on to the moors; but she always returned to her place in the angle, and counted that a day gained when she knew by Richard’s strong singing that he yet lived.  His songs told her more than that:  they were all of love, and if her name came not in her image did.  She knew by the mere pitch of his voice — who so well? — when he was occupied with her and when not.  Mostly he sang all the morning from the moment the sun struck his window.  Thus she judged him a light sleeper.  From noon to four there was no sound; surely then he slept.  He sang fitfully in the evening, not so saliently; more at night, if there was a moon; and generally he closed his eyes with a stave of Li dous consire, that song which he had made of and for her.

When she had been sitting there for upwards of a month, and still no sign from the bearer of the letter, she saw Gilles de Gurdun come halting up the poplar avenue and pry about the walls, much as she herself had done.  She knew him at once for all his tatters, this square-faced, low-browed Norman.  How he came there, if not as a slot-hound comes, she could not guess; but she knew perfectly well what he was about.  The blood-instinct had led him, inflexible man, from far Acre across the seas, over the sharp mountains and enormous plains; the blood-instinct had brought him as truly as ever love led her — more truly, indeed.  Here he was, with murder still in his heart.

Watching him through the meshes of her hair, elbowing her arms on her knees, she thought, What should she do?  Plead?  Nay, dare she plead for so royal a head, for so great a heart, so great a king, for one so nearly god that, for a sacrifice, she could have yielded up no more to very God?  This strife tore her to pieces, while Gurdun snuffled round the walls, actually round the buttress where she crouched, spying out the entries.  On one side she feared Gilles, on the other scorned what he could do.  There was the leper!  He made Gilles terrible; even her sacrifice on Lebanon might not avail against such as he.  But King Richard!  But this strong singer!  But this god of war!  Gilles came round the walls for a second time, nosing here and there, stopping, shaking his head, limping on.  Then she heard the King’s voice singing, high and sharp and spiring; his glorious voice, keener than any man’s, as pure as any boy’s, singing with astounding gaiety, ’Al entrada del tems clar, eya!’

Gilles stopped as one struck, and gaped up at the tower.  To see his stupid mouth open, Jehane’s bosom heaved with pride well-nigh insufferable.  Had any woman, since Mary conceived, such a lover as hers!  ’Oh, Gilles, Gilles, go you on with your knife in your vest.  What can you do, little oaf, against King Richard?’ Gilles went in by the gate, and she let him go.  He was away two days, by which time she had cause to alter her mind.  The prisoner sang nothing; and presently a man dressed like a Bohemian came out of the town and spoke to her.  This was Cogia, the Assassin, bearer of the letter.

‘Well, Cogia?’ said Jehane, holding herself.

’Mistress, the letter of our lord has been delivered.  I think it may go hard with the Melek.’

‘What, Cogia?  Does the Archduke dare?’

’The Archduke, mistress, desires not the Melek’s death.  He is a worthy man.  But many do desire it — kings of the West, kinsmen of the Marquess, above all the Melek’s blood-brother.  One of that prince’s men, as I judge him, is with him now — one of your country, mistress.’

In a vision she saw the leper again, a dull smear in the sunny waste, scratching himself on a white stone.  She saw him come hopping from rock to rock, his wagging finger, shapeless face, tongueless voice.

‘Mistress — ’ said Cogia.  She turned blank eyes upon him.  ‘I pray,’ she said; ‘I pray.  Has God no pity?’

Cogia shrugged.  ’What has God to do with pity?  The end of the world is in His hand already.  The Melek is a king, and the Norman dung in his sight.  Who knows the end but God, and how shall He pity what He hath decreed for wisdom?  This I say, if the King dies the man dies.’

Jehane threw up her head.  ’The King will not die, Cogia.  Yet to-morrow, if the man comes not out, I will go to seek him.’

Early in the morning Gilles did come out, turned the angle of the ditch, and shuffled towards her, his head hung.  Jehane moved swiftly out from the shadow of the buttress and confronted him.  She folded her arms over her breast; and at that moment the shadow of Richard’s tower was capped with the shadow of Richard himself.  But she saw nothing of this.  ’Halt there, Sir Gilles,’ she said.  The Norman gave a squeal, like a hog startled at his trough, and went dead-fire colour.

‘Ha, Heart of Jesus!’ said Gilles de Gurdun.