The Talisman

by Sir Walter Scott

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Chapter XXI

—and wither’d Murder,
     Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
     Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
     With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
     Moves like a ghost.

For the space of a quarter of an hour, or longer, after the incident related, all remained perfectly quiet in the front of the royal habitation. The King read and mused in the entrance of his pavilion; behind, and with his back turned to the same entrance, the Nubian slave still burnished the ample pavesse; in front of all, at a hundred paces distant, the yeomen of the guard stood, sat, or lay extended on the grass, attentive to their own sports, but pursuing them in silence, while on the esplanade betwixt them and the front of the tent lay, scarcely to be distinguished from a bundle of rags, the senseless form of the marabout.

But the Nubian had the advantage of a mirror from the brilliant reflection which the surface of the highly-polished shield now afforded, by means of which he beheld, to his alarm and surprise, that the marabout raised his head gently from the ground, so as to survey all around him, moving with a well-adjusted precaution which seemed entirely inconsistent with a state of ebriety. He couched his head instantly, as if satisfied he was unobserved, and began, with the slightest possible appearance of voluntary effort, to drag himself, as if by chance, ever nearer and nearer to the King, but stopping and remaining fixed at intervals, like the spider, which, moving towards her object, collapses into apparent lifelessness when she thinks she is the subject of observation. This species of movement appeared suspicious to the Ethiopian, who, on his part, prepared himself, as quietly as possible, to interfere, the instant that interference should seem to be necessary.

The marabout, meanwhile, glided on gradually and imperceptibly, serpent-like, or rather snail-like, till he was about ten yards distant from Richard’s person, when, starting on his feet, he sprung forward with the bound of a tiger, stood at the King’s back in less than an instant, and brandished aloft the cangiar, or poniard, which he had hidden in his sleeve. Not the presence of his whole army could have saved their heroic Monarch; but the motions of the Nubian had been as well calculated as those of the enthusiast, and ere the latter could strike, the former caught his uplifted arm. Turning his fanatical wrath upon what thus unexpectedly interposed betwixt him and his object, the Charegite, for such was the seeming marabout, dealt the Nubian a blow with the dagger, which, however, only grazed his arm, while the far superior strength of the Ethiopian easily dashed him to the ground. Aware of what had passed, Richard had now arisen, and with little more of surprise, anger, or interest of any kind in his countenance than an ordinary man would show in brushing off and crushing an intrusive wasp, caught up the stool on which he had been sitting, and exclaiming only, “Ha, dog!” dashed almost to pieces the skull of the assassin, who uttered twice, once in a loud, and once in a broken tone, the words ALLAH ACKBAR!—God is victorious—and expired at the King’s feet.

“Ye are careful warders,” said Richard to his archers, in a tone of scornful reproach, as, aroused by the bustle of what had passed, in terror and tumult they now rushed into his tent; “watchful sentinels ye are, to leave me to do such hangman’s work with my own hand. Be silent, all of you, and cease your senseless clamour!—saw ye never a dead Turk before? Here, cast that carrion out of the camp, strike the head from the trunk, and stick it on a lance, taking care to turn the face to Mecca, that he may the easier tell the foul impostor on whose inspiration he came hither how he has sped on his errand.—For thee, my swart and silent friend,” he added, turning to the Ethiopian—“but how’s this? Thou art wounded—and with a poisoned weapon, I warrant me, for by force of stab so weak an animal as that could scarce hope to do more than raze the lion’s hide.—Suck the poison from his wound one of you—the venom is harmless on the lips, though fatal when it mingles with the blood.”

The yeomen looked on each other confusedly and with hesitation, the apprehension of so strange a danger prevailing with those who feared no other.

“How now, sirrahs,” continued the King, “are you dainty-lipped, or do you fear death, that you daily thus?”

“Not the death of a man,” said Long Allen, to whom the King looked as he spoke; “but methinks I would not die like a poisoned rat for the sake of a black chattel there, that is bought and sold in a market like a Martlemas ox.”

“His Grace speaks to men of sucking poison,” muttered another yeoman, “as if he said, ‘Go to, swallow a gooseberry!’”

“Nay,” said Richard, “I never bade man do that which I would not do myself.”

And without further ceremony, and in spite of the general expostulations of those around, and the respectful opposition of the Nubian himself, the King of England applied his lips to the wound of the black slave, treating with ridicule all remonstrances, and overpowering all resistance. He had no sooner intermitted his singular occupation, than the Nubian started from him, and casting a scarf over his arm, intimated by gestures, as firm in purpose as they were respectful in manner, his determination not to permit the Monarch to renew so degrading an employment. Long Allen also interposed, saying that, if it were necessary to prevent the King engaging again in a treatment of this kind, his own lips, tongue, and teeth were at the service of the negro (as he called the Ethiopian), and that he would eat him up bodily, rather than King Richard’s mouth should again approach him.

Neville, who entered with other officers, added his remonstrances.

“Nay, nay, make not a needless halloo about a hart that the hounds have

lost, or a danger when it is over,” said the King. “The wound will be a

trifle, for the blood is scarce drawn—an angry cat had dealt a deeper

scratch. And for me, I have but to take a drachm of orvietan by way of

precaution, though it is needless.”

Thus spoke Richard, a little ashamed, perhaps, of his own

condescension, though sanctioned both by humanity and gratitude. But

when Neville continued to make remonstrances on the peril to his royal

person, the King imposed silence on him.

“Peace, I prithee—make no more of it. I did it but to show these ignorant, prejudiced knaves how they might help each other when these cowardly caitiffs come against us with sarbacanes and poisoned shafts. But,” he added, “take thee this Nubian to thy quarters, Neville—I have changed my mind touching him—let him be well cared for. But hark in thine ear; see that he escapes thee not—there is more in him than seems. Let him have all liberty, so that he leave not the camp.—And you, ye beef-devouring, wine-swilling English mastiffs, get ye to your guard again, and be sure you keep it more warily. Think not you are now in your own land of fair play, where men speak before they strike, and shake hands ere they cut throats. Danger in our land walks openly, and with his blade drawn, and defies the foe whom he means to assault; but here he challenges you with a silk glove instead of a steel gauntlet, cuts your throat with the feather of a turtle-dove, stabs you with the tongue of a priest’s brooch, or throttles you with the lace of my lady’s boddice. Go to—keep your eyes open and your mouths shut—drink less, and look sharper about you; or I will place your huge stomachs on such short allowance as would pinch the stomach of a patient Scottish man.”

The yeomen, abashed and mortified, withdrew to their post, and Neville was beginning to remonstrate with his master upon the risk of passing over thus slightly their negligence upon their duty, and the propriety of an example in a case so peculiarly aggravated as the permitting one so suspicious as the marabout to approach within dagger’s length of his person, when Richard interrupted him with, “Speak not of it, Neville—wouldst thou have me avenge a petty risk to myself more severely than the loss of England’s banner? It has been stolen—stolen by a thief, or delivered up by a traitor, and no blood has been shed for it.—My sable friend, thou art an expounder of mysteries, saith the illustrious Soldan—now would I give thee thine own weight in gold, if, by raising one still blacker than thyself or by what other means thou wilt, thou couldst show me the thief who did mine honour that wrong. What sayest thou, ha?”

The mute seemed desirous to speak, but uttered only that imperfect sound proper to his melancholy condition; then folded his arms, looked on the King with an eye of intelligence, and nodded in answer to his question.

“How!” said Richard, with joyful impatience. “Wilt thou undertake to make discovery in this matter?”

The Nubian slave repeated the same motion.

“But how shall we understand each other?” said the King. “Canst thou write, good fellow?”

The slave again nodded in assent.

“Give him writing-tools,” said the King. “They were readier in my father’s tent than mine; but they be somewhere about, if this scorching climate have not dried up the ink.—Why, this fellow is a jewel—a black diamond, Neville.”

“So please you, my liege,” said Neville, “if I might speak my poor mind, it were ill dealing in this ware. This man must be a wizard, and wizards deal with the Enemy, who hath most interest to sow tares among the wheat, and bring dissension into our councils, and—”

“Peace, Neville,” said Richard. “Hello to your northern hound when he is close on the haunch of the deer, and hope to recall him, but seek not to stop Plantagenet when he hath hope to retrieve his honour.”

The slave, who during this discussion had been writing, in which art he seemed skilful, now arose, and pressing what he had written to his brow, prostrated himself as usual, ere he delivered it into the King’s hands. The scroll was in French, although their intercourse had hitherto been conducted by Richard in the lingua franca.

“To Richard, the conquering and invincible King of England, this from the humblest of his slaves. Mysteries are the sealed caskets of Heaven, but wisdom may devise means to open the lock. Were your slave stationed where the leaders of the Christian host were made to pass before him in order, doubt nothing that if he who did the injury whereof my King complains shall be among the number, he may be made manifest in his iniquity, though it be hidden under seven veils.”

“Now, by Saint George!” said King Richard, “thou hast spoken most opportunely.—Neville, thou knowest that when we muster our troops to-morrow the princes have agreed that, to expiate the affront offered to England in the theft of her banner, the leaders should pass our new standard as it floats on Saint George’s Mount, and salute it with formal regard. Believe me, the secret traitor will not dare to absent himself from an expurgation so solemn, lest his very absence should be matter of suspicion. There will we place our sable man of counsel, and if his art can detect the villain, leave me to deal with him.”

“My liege,” said Neville, with the frankness of an English baron, “beware what work you begin. Here is the concord of our holy league unexpectedly renewed—will you, upon such suspicion as a negro slave can instil, tear open wounds so lately closed? Or will you use the solemn procession, adopted for the reparation of your honour and establishment of unanimity amongst the discording princes, as the means of again finding out new cause of offence, or reviving ancient quarrels? It were scarce too strong to say this were a breach of the declaration your Grace made to the assembled Council of the Crusade.”

“Neville,” said the King, sternly interrupting him, “thy zeal makes thee presumptuous and unmannerly. Never did I promise to abstain from taking whatever means were most promising to discover the infamous author of the attack on my honour. Ere I had done so, I would have renounced my kingdom, my life. All my declarations were under this necessary and absolute qualification;—only, if Austria had stepped forth and owned the injury like a man, I proffered, for the sake of Christendom, to have forgiven HIM.”

“But,” continued the baron anxiously, “what hope that this juggling slave of Saladin will not palter with your Grace?”

“Peace, Neville,” said the King; “thou thinkest thyself mighty wise, and art but a fool. Mind thou my charge touching this fellow; there is more in him than thy Westmoreland wit can fathom.—And thou, smart and silent, prepare to perform the feat thou hast promised, and, by the word of a King, thou shalt choose thine own recompense.—Lo, he writes again.”

The mute accordingly wrote and delivered to the King, with the same form as before, another slip of paper, containing these words, “The will of the King is the law to his slave; nor doth it become him to ask guerdon for discharge of his devoir.”

“GUERDON and DEVOIR!” said the King, interrupting himself as he read, and speaking to Neville in the English tongue with some emphasis on the words. “These Eastern people will profit by the Crusaders—they are acquiring the language of chivalry! And see, Neville, how discomposed that fellow looks! were it not for his colour he would blush. I should not think it strange if he understood what I say—they are perilous linguists.”

“The poor slave cannot endure your Grace’s eye,” said Neville; “it is nothing more.”

“Well, but,” continued the King, striking the paper with his finger as he proceeded, “this bold scroll proceeds to say that our trusty mute is charged with a message from Saladin to the Lady Edith Plantagenet, and craves means and opportunity to deliver it. What thinkest thou of a request so modest—ha, Neville?”

“I cannot say,” said Neville, “how such freedom may relish with your Grace; but the lease of the messenger’s neck would be a short one, who should carry such a request to the Soldan on the part of your Majesty.”

“Nay, I thank Heaven that I covet none of his sunburnt beauties,” said Richard; “and for punishing this fellow for discharging his master’s errand, and that when he has just saved my life—methinks it were something too summary. I’ll tell thee, Neville, a secret; for although our sable and mute minister be present, he cannot, thou knowest, tell it over again, even if he should chance to understand us. I tell thee that, for this fortnight past, I have been under a strange spell, and I would I were disenchanted. There has no sooner any one done me good service, but, lo you, he cancels his interest in me by some deep injury; and, on the other hand, he who hath deserved death at my hands for some treachery or some insult, is sure to be the very person of all others who confers upon me some obligation that overbalances his demerits, and renders respite of his sentence a debt due from my honour. Thus, thou seest, I am deprived of the best part of my royal function, since I can neither punish men nor reward them. Until the influence of this disqualifying planet be passed away, I will say nothing concerning the request of this our sable attendant, save that it is an unusually bold one, and that his best chance of finding grace in our eyes will be to endeavour to make the discovery which he proposes to achieve in our behalf. Meanwhile, Neville, do thou look well to him, and let him be honourably cared for. And hark thee once more,” he said, in a low whisper, “seek out yonder hermit of Engaddi, and bring him to me forthwith, be he saint or savage, madman or sane. Let me see him privately.”

Neville retired from the royal tent, signing to the Nubian to follow him, and much surprised at what he had seen and heard, and especially at the unusual demeanour of the King. In general, no task was so easy as to discover Richard’s immediate course of sentiment and feeling, though it might, in some cases, be difficult to calculate its duration; for no weathercock obeyed the changing wind more readily than the King his gusts of passion. But on the present occasion his manner seemed unusually constrained and mysterious; nor was it easy to guess whether displeasure or kindness predominated in his conduct towards his new dependant, or in the looks with which, from time to time, he regarded him. The ready service which the King had rendered to counteract the bad effects of the Nubian’s wound might seem to balance the obligation conferred on him by the slave when he intercepted the blow of the assassin; but it seemed, as a much longer account remained to be arranged between them, that the Monarch was doubtful whether the settlement might leave him, upon the whole, debtor or creditor, and that, therefore, he assumed in the meantime a neutral demeanour, which might suit with either character. As for the Nubian, by whatever means he had acquired the art of writing the European languages, the King remained convinced that the English tongue at least was unknown to him, since, having watched him closely during the last part of the interview, he conceived it impossible for any one understanding a conversation, of which he was himself the subject, to have so completely avoided the appearance of taking an interest in it.


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