‘Mid these wild scenes Enchantment waves her hand, To change the face of the mysterious land; Till the bewildering scenes around us seem The Vain productions of a feverish dream. ASTOLPHO, A ROMANCE.
When the Knight of the Leopard awoke from his long and profound repose, he found himself in circumstances so different from those in which he had lain down to sleep, that he doubted whether he was not still dreaming, or whether the scene had not been changed by magic. Instead of the damp grass, he lay on a couch of more than Oriental luxury; and some kind hands had, during his repose, stripped him of the cassock of chamois which he wore under his armour, and substituted a night-dress of the finest linen and a loose gown of silk. He had been canopied only by the palm-trees of the desert, but now he lay beneath a silken pavilion, which blazed with the richest colours of the Chinese loom, while a slight curtain of gauze, displayed around his couch, was calculated to protect his repose from the insects, to which he had, ever since his arrival in these climates, been a constant and passive prey. He looked around, as if to convince himself that he was actually awake; and all that fell beneath his eye partook of the splendour of his dormitory. A portable bath of cedar, lined with silver, was ready for use, and steamed with the odours which had been used in preparing it. On a small stand of ebony beside the couch stood a silver vase, containing sherbet of the most exquisite quality, cold as snow, and which the thirst that followed the use of the strong narcotic rendered peculiarly delicious. Still further to dispel the dregs of intoxication which it had left behind, the knight resolved to use the bath, and experienced in doing so a delightful refreshment. Having dried himself with napkins of the Indian wool, he would willingly have resumed his own coarse garments, that he might go forth to see whether the world was as much changed without as within the place of his repose. These, however, were nowhere to be seen, but in their place he found a Saracen dress of rich materials, with sabre and poniard, and all befitting an emir of distinction. He was able to suggest no motive to himself for this exuberance of care, excepting a suspicion that these attentions were intended to shake him in his religious profession—as indeed it was well known that the high esteem of the European knowledge and courage made the Soldan unbounded in his gifts to those who, having become his prisoners, had been induced to take the turban. Sir Kenneth, therefore, crossing himself devoutly, resolved to set all such snares at defiance; and that he might do so the more firmly, conscientiously determined to avail himself as moderately as possible of the attentions and luxuries thus liberally heaped upon him. Still, however, he felt his head oppressed and sleepy; and aware, too, that his undress was not fit for appearing abroad, he reclined upon the couch, and was again locked in the arms of slumber.
But this time his rest was not unbroken, for he was awakened by the voice of the physician at the door of the tent, inquiring after his health, and whether he had rested sufficiently. “May I enter your tent?” he concluded, “for the curtain is drawn before the entrance.”
“The master,” replied Sir Kenneth, determined to show that he was not surprised into forgetfulness of his own condition, “need demand no permission to enter the tent of the slave.”
“But if I come not as a master?” said El Hakim, still without entering.
“The physician,” answered the knight, “hath free access to the bedside of his patient.”
“Neither come I now as a physician,” replied El Hakim; “and therefore I still request permission, ere I come under the covering of thy tent.”
“Whoever comes as a friend,” said Sir Kenneth, “and such thou hast hitherto shown thyself to me, the habitation of the friend is ever open to him.”
“Yet once again,” said the Eastern sage, after the periphrastical manner of his countrymen, “supposing that I come not as a friend?”
“Come as thou wilt,” said the Scottish knight, somewhat impatient of this circumlocution; “be what thou wilt—thou knowest well it is neither in my power nor my inclination to refuse thee entrance.”
“I come, then,” said El Hakim, “as your ancient foe, but a fair and a generous one.”
He entered as he spoke; and when he stood before the bedside of Sir Kenneth, the voice continued to be that of Adonbec, the Arabian physician, but the form, dress, and features were those of Ilderim of Kurdistan, called Sheerkohf. Sir Kenneth gazed upon him as if he expected the vision to depart, like something created by his imagination.
“Doth it so surprise thee,” said Ilderim, “and thou an approved warrior, to see that a soldier knows somewhat of the art of healing? I say to thee, Nazarene, that an accomplished cavalier should know how to dress his steed, as well as how to ride him; how to forge his sword upon the stithy, as well as how to use it in battle; how to burnish his arms, as well as how to wear them; and, above all, how to cure wounds, as well as how to inflict them.”
As he spoke, the Christian knight repeatedly shut his eyes, and while they remained closed, the idea of the Hakim, with his long, flowing dark robes, high Tartar cap, and grave gestures was present to his imagination; but so soon as he opened them, the graceful and richly-gemmed turban, the light hauberk of steel rings entwisted with silver, which glanced brilliantly as it obeyed every inflection of the body, the features freed from their formal expression, less swarthy, and no longer shadowed by the mass of hair (now limited to a well-trimmed beard), announced the soldier and not the sage.
“Art thou still so much surprised,” said the Emir, “and hast thou walked in the world with such little observance, as to wonder that men are not always what they seem? Thou thyself—art thou what thou seemest?”
“No, by Saint Andrew!” exclaimed the knight; “for to the whole Christian camp I seem a traitor, and I know myself to be a true though an erring man.”
“Even so I judged thee,” said Ilderim; “and as we had eaten salt together, I deemed myself bound to rescue thee from death and contumely. But wherefore lie you still on your couch, since the sun is high in the heavens? or are the vestments which my sumpter-camels have afforded unworthy of your wearing?”
“Not unworthy, surely, but unfitting for it,” replied the Scot. “Give me the dress of a slave, noble Ilderim, and I will don it with pleasure; but I cannot brook to wear the habit of the free Eastern warrior with the turban of the Moslem.”
“Nazarene,” answered the Emir, “thy nation so easily entertain suspicion that it may well render themselves suspected. Have I not told thee that Saladin desires no converts saving those whom the holy Prophet shall dispose to submit themselves to his law? violence and bribery are alike alien to his plan for extending the true faith. Hearken to me, my brother. When the blind man was miraculously restored to sight, the scales dropped from his eyes at the Divine pleasure. Think’st thou that any earthly leech could have removed them? No. Such mediciner might have tormented the patient with his instruments, or perhaps soothed him with his balsams and cordials, but dark as he was must the darkened man have remained; and it is even so with the blindness of the understanding. If there be those among the Franks who, for the sake of worldly lucre, have assumed the turban of the Prophet, and followed the laws of Islam, with their own consciences be the blame. Themselves sought out the bait; it was not flung to them by the Soldan. And when they shall hereafter be sentenced, as hypocrites, to the lowest gulf of hell, below Christian and Jew, magician and idolater, and condemned to eat the fruit of the tree Yacoun, which is the heads of demons, to themselves, not to the Soldan, shall their guilt and their punishment be attributed. Wherefore wear, without doubt or scruple, the vesture prepared for you, since, if you proceed to the camp of Saladin, your own native dress will expose you to troublesome observation, and perhaps to insult.”
“IF I go to the camp of Saladin?” said Sir Kenneth, repeating the words of the Emir; “alas! am I a free agent, and rather must I NOT go wherever your pleasure carries me?”
“Thine own will may guide thine own motions,” said the Emir, “as freely as the wind which moveth the dust of the desert in what direction it chooseth. The noble enemy who met and well-nigh mastered my sword cannot become my slave like him who has crouched beneath it. If wealth and power would tempt thee to join our people, I could ensure thy possessing them; but the man who refused the favours of the Soldan when the axe was at his head, will not, I fear, now accept them, when I tell him he has his free choice.”
“Complete your generosity, noble Emir,” said Sir Kenneth, “by forbearing to show me a mode of requital which conscience forbids me to comply with. Permit me rather to express, as bound in courtesy, my gratitude for this most chivalrous bounty, this undeserved generosity.”
“Say not undeserved,” replied the Emir Ilderim. “Was it not through thy conversation, and thy account of the beauties which grace the court of the Melech Ric, that I ventured me thither in disguise, and thereby procured a sight the most blessed that I have ever enjoyed—that I ever shall enjoy, until the glories of Paradise beam on my eyes?”
“I understand you not,” said Sir Kenneth, colouring alternately, and turning pale, as one who felt that the conversation was taking a tone of the most painful delicacy.
“Not understand me!” exclaimed the Emir. “If the sight I saw in the tent of King Richard escaped thine observation, I will account it duller than the edge of a buffoon’s wooden falchion. True, thou wert under sentence of death at the time; but, in my case, had my head been dropping from the trunk, the last strained glances of my eyeballs had distinguished with delight such a vision of loveliness, and the head would have rolled itself towards the incomparable houris, to kiss with its quivering lips the hem of their vestments. Yonder royalty of England, who for her superior loveliness deserves to be Queen of the universe—what tenderness in her blue eye, what lustre in her tresses of dishevelled gold! By the tomb of the Prophet, I scarce think that the houri who shall present to me the diamond cup of immortality will deserve so warm a caress!”
“Saracen,” said Sir Kenneth sternly, “thou speakest of the wife of Richard of England, of whom men think not and speak not as a woman to be won, but as a Queen to be revered.”
“I cry you mercy,” said the Saracen. “I had forgotten your superstitious veneration for the sex, which you consider rather fit to be wondered at and worshipped than wooed and possessed. I warrant, since thou exactest such profound respect to yonder tender piece of frailty, whose every motion, step, and look bespeaks her very woman, less than absolute adoration must not be yielded to her of the dark tresses and nobly speaking eye. SHE indeed, I will allow, hath in her noble port and majestic mien something at once pure and firm; yet even she, when pressed by opportunity and a forward lover, would, I warrant thee, thank him in her heart rather for treating her as a mortal than as a goddess.”
“Respect the kinswoman of Coeur de Lion!” said Sir Kenneth, in a tone of unrepressed anger.
“Respect her!” answered the Emir in scorn; “by the Caaba, and if I do, it shall be rather as the bride of Saladin.”
“The infidel Soldan is unworthy to salute even a spot that has been pressed by the foot of Edith Plantagenet!” exclaimed the Christian, springing from his couch.
“Ha! what said the Giaour?” exclaimed the Emir, laying his hand on his poniard hilt, while his forehead glowed like glancing copper, and the muscles of his lips and cheeks wrought till each curl of his beard seemed to twist and screw itself, as if alive with instinctive wrath. But the Scottish knight, who had stood the lion-anger of Richard, was unappalled at the tigerlike mood of the chafed Saracen.
“What I have said,” continued Sir Kenneth, with folded arms and dauntless look, “I would, were my hands loose, maintain on foot or horseback against all mortals; and would hold it not the most memorable deed of my life to support it with my good broadsword against a score of these sickles and bodkins,” pointing at the curved sabre and small poniard of the Emir.
The Saracen recovered his composure as the Christian spoke, so far as to withdraw his hand from his weapon, as if the motion had been without meaning, but still continued in deep ire.
“By the sword of the Prophet,” he said, “which is the key both of heaven and hell, he little values his own life, brother, who uses the language thou dost! Believe me, that were thine hands loose, as thou term’st it, one single true believer would find them so much to do that thou wouldst soon wish them fettered again in manacles of iron.”
“Sooner would I wish them hewn off by the shoulder-blades!” replied Sir Kenneth.
“Well. Thy hands are bound at present,” said the Saracen, in a more amicable tone—“bound by thine own gentle sense of courtesy; nor have I any present purpose of setting them at liberty. We have proved each other’s strength and courage ere now, and we may again meet in a fair field—and shame befall him who shall be the first to part from his foeman! But now we are friends, and I look for aid from thee rather than hard terms or defiances.”
“We ARE friends,” repeated the knight; and there was a pause, during which the fiery Saracen paced the tent, like the lion, who, after violent irritation, is said to take that method of cooling the distemperature of his blood, ere he stretches himself to repose in his den. The colder European remained unaltered in posture and aspect; yet he, doubtless, was also engaged in subduing the angry feelings which had been so unexpectedly awakened.
“Let us reason of this calmly,” said the Saracen. “I am a physician, as thou knowest, and it is written that he who would have his wound cured must not shrink when the leech probes and tests it. Seest thou, I am about to lay my finger on the sore. Thou lovest this kinswoman of the Melech Ric. Unfold the veil that shrouds thy thoughts—or unfold it not if thou wilt, for mine eyes see through its coverings.”
“I LOVED her,” answered Sir Kenneth, after a pause, “as a man loves Heaven’s grace, and sued for her favour like a sinner for Heaven’s pardon.”
“And you love her no longer?” said the Saracen.
“Alas,” answered Sir Kenneth, “I am no longer worthy to love her. I pray thee cease this discourse—thy words are poniards to me.”
“Pardon me but a moment,” continued Ilderim. “When thou, a poor and obscure soldier, didst so boldly and so highly fix thine affection, tell me, hadst thou good hope of its issue?”
“Love exists not without hope,” replied the knight; “but mine was as nearly allied to despair as that of the sailor swimming for his life, who, as he surmounts billow after billow, catches by intervals some gleam of the distant beacon, which shows him there is land in sight, though his sinking heart and wearied limbs assure him that he shall never reach it.”
“And now,” said Ilderim, “these hopes are sunk—that solitary light is quenched for ever?”
“For ever,” answered Sir Kenneth, in the tone of an echo from the bosom of a ruined sepulchre.
“Methinks,” said the Saracen, “if all thou lackest were some such distant meteoric glimpse of happiness as thou hadst formerly, thy beacon-light might be rekindled, thy hope fished up from the ocean in which it has sunk, and thou thyself, good knight, restored to the exercise and amusement of nourishing thy fantastic fashion upon a diet as unsubstantial as moonlight; for, if thou stood’st tomorrow fair in reputation as ever thou wert, she whom thou lovest will not be less the daughter of princes and the elected bride of Saladin.”
“I would it so stood,” said the Scot, “and if I did not—”
He stopped short, like a man who is afraid of boasting under circumstances which did not permit his being put to the test. The Saracen smiled as he concluded the sentence.
“Thou wouldst challenge the Soldan to single combat?” said he.
“And if I did,” said Sir Kenneth haughtily, “Saladin’s would neither be the first nor the best turban that I have couched lance at.”
“Ay, but methinks the Soldan might regard it as too unequal a mode of perilling the chance of a royal bride and the event of a great war,” said the Emir.
“He may be met with in the front of battle,” said the knight, his eyes gleaming with the ideas which such a thought inspired.
“He has been ever found there,” said Ilderim; “nor is it his wont to turn his horse’s head from any brave encounter. But it was not of the Soldan that I meant to speak. In a word, if it will content thee to be placed in such reputation as may be attained by detection of the thief who stole the Banner of England, I can put thee in a fair way of achieving this task—that is, if thou wilt be governed; for what says Lokman, ‘If the child would walk, the nurse must lead him; if the ignorant would understand, the wise must instruct.’”
“And thou art wise, Ilderim,” said the Scot—“wise though a Saracen, and generous though an infidel. I have witnessed that thou art both. Take, then, the guidance of this matter; and so thou ask nothing of me contrary to my loyalty and my Christian faith, I, will obey thee punctually. Do what thou hast said, and take my life when it is accomplished.”
“Listen thou to me, then,” said the Saracen. “Thy noble hound is now recovered, by the blessing of that divine medicine which healeth man and beast; and by his sagacity shall those who assailed him be discovered.”
“Ha!” said the knight, “methinks I comprehend thee. I was dull not to think of this!”
“But tell me,” added the Emir, “hast thou any followers or retainers in the camp by whom the animal may be known?”
“I dismissed,” said Sir Kenneth, “my old attendant, thy patient, with a varlet that waited on him, at the time when I expected to suffer death, giving him letters for my friends in Scotland; there are none other to whom the dog is familiar. But then my own person is well known—my very speech will betray me, in a camp where I have played no mean part for many months.”
“Both he and thou shalt be disguised, so as to escape even close examination. I tell thee,” said the Saracen, “that not thy brother in arms—not thy brother in blood—shall discover thee, if thou be guided by my counsels. Thou hast seen me do matters more difficult—he that can call the dying from the darkness of the shadow of death can easily cast a mist before the eyes of the living. But mark me: there is still the condition annexed to this service—that thou deliver a letter of Saladin to the niece of the Melech Ric, whose name is as difficult to our Eastern tongue and lips, as her beauty is delightful to our eyes.”
Sir Kenneth paused before he answered, and the Saracen observing his hesitation, demanded of him, “if he feared to undertake this message?”
“Not if there were death in the execution,” said Sir Kenneth. “I do but pause to consider whether it consists with my honour to bear the letter of the Soldan, or with that of the Lady Edith to receive it from a heathen prince.”
“By the head of Mohammed, and by the honour of a soldier—by the tomb at Mecca, and by the soul of my father,” said the Emir, “I swear to thee that the letter is written in all honour and respect. The song of the nightingale will sooner blight the rose-bower she loves than will the words of the Soldan offend the ears of the lovely kinswoman of England.”
“Then,” said the knight, “I will bear the Soldan’s letter faithfully, as if I were his born vassal—understanding, that beyond this simple act of service, which I will render with fidelity, from me of all men he can least expect mediation or advice in this his strange love-suit.”
“Saladin is noble,” answered the Emir, “and will not spur a generous horse to a leap which he cannot achieve. Come with me to my tent,” he added, “and thou shalt be presently equipped with a disguise as unsearchable as midnight, so thou mayest walk the camp of the Nazarenes as if thou hadst on thy finger the signet of Giaougi.” [Perhaps the same with Gyges.]