When King Richard of England was engaged in the Crusades, he and his army of knights and soldiers were opposed to the mighty hosts of Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria. Saladin was a brave and courtly enemy, and Richard himself was full of knightly adventure. During an intermission of the many battles that were fought on the fields of Palestine, it was arranged by conference that the monarchs should meet and exchange greetings in the presence of their followers.
A station called the Diamond of the Desert was assigned as the place of meeting, it being midway between the Christian and Saracen camps. Richard was to bring one hundred armed followers and Saladin five hundred guards. All others who came were to be without armor of any kind.
The Diamond of the Desert, ordinarily a single fountain spring, was transformed into a glittering camp under the orders and care of Saladin. Embroidered flags floated over gorgeous pavilions, ornamented with rich cloths, which reflected the rays of the sun in a thousand tints and colors. The tops of the pavilions were in scarlet, yellow, blue, and other brilliant hues, while the poles were decorated with golden pomegranates and silken flags.
On the appointed day, Richard, with his men, moved forward across the plains to meet his mighty antagonist. His body of men was small, but well chosen and of true valor. It was a gay party, rich in dress and trappings of man and horse, and noisy with bugles and the sound of laughter and song.
"We are few, my lord, and they are many," said one of the knights. "Do you not fear treachery of this pagan? It seems that I hear the sound of many feet and many voices. Had we better not have a care?"
"Shame on you, knight!" answered Richard. "The sultan may be an infidel, but he is a generous enemy and a knightly one. I have his word that there shall be no violence, and it is enough."
They crossed a low hill and came in sight of the pavilion. They stopped at the sight of the splendid display that the sultan had made for their reception. As soon as they appeared, the Arabs caught sight of them and hundreds of them rode forward in a swift gallop. Clouds of dust rose in the air. The Saracen host surrounded the body of Christians, and began to yell their barbaric welcome, to brandish their spears and to shoot a volley of arrows into the air.
"Have no fear that they will do us harm," said Richard. "Their arrows are blunt, their spear heads have been removed. This is their way of welcoming a guest."
"I would we had a thousand good knights here to greet them in return," said one of his followers. "I should feel in better humor to partake of their hospitality."
"Truly, a wild welcome!" exclaimed Richard. "But it is after their desert fashion, and doubtless they would rejoice to see us daunted and disturbed; but remember, we have English hearts not easily dismayed." And with that the body of Christians moved on toward the pavilion, while the Saracen riders continually encircled them with loud cries and warlike greetings.
When they came near the camp a shrill cry was heard above the tumult as of a signal from a silver trumpet. Immediately the Saracen horde ceased their howlings and circlings, and fell in behind the Christians, with singular order and quiet. The dust began to settle upon the plains and Richard could now get sight of the pavilion toward which he was proceeding.
A body of cavalry approached him, the five hundred guards agreed upon for the defence of the Sultan. They were completely armed, most gorgeously arrayed, and each man rode a horse worth an earl's ransom. Richard's eyes shone with eagerness when he recognized the splendid body of soldiers, though they were but slaves of the sultan and were infidels.
"Truly, my brother Saladin knows how to choose his men. My eyes never beheld better men or finer mounts. I would they were of my train," muttered the royal leader to himself.
The splendid army moved forward to the sound of martial music, though it was somewhat barbaric in its wild desert strains. When they reached the body of Christians they respectfully divided into two parts, leaving an open path for Richard and his men to move forward. It would have been an easy thing to murder every Christian, but there was no need for fear, for Saladin was the host and his word for safety had been given.
Richard assumed the head of his followers, aware that Saladin was approaching. It was not long before the noble figure of the Saracen leader, wearing a snow-white turban and vest, and a scarlet sash, appeared, surrounded by his domestic officers and a body-guard of hideous negroes.
A close inspection showed in his turban that inestimable gem which was known as the Sea of Light, and which was worth alone more than the crown jewels of England. In his ring he wore a diamond that was worth an empire, and his sword was ornamented with a sapphire the like of which could not be found in the world.
"He may be a pagan, but he is truly a king," said Richard as his host came in full view and prepared to dismount from his white Arabian steed.
Richard dismounted also and the monarchs approached each other. There was profound silence, the music ceased, and the clamor of voices was hushed. Both monarchs bowed very low, and then according to the Eastern custom, they embraced as brothers and equals. Richard looked upon the Saracen with curious but not discourteous eyes. Saladin gave no sign of curiosity or interest in the trappings of his guest or of his followers. At last the sultan spoke.
"King Richard is as welcome to Saladin as water to the desert. I trust he feels no fear of all this host, for they are not armed and mean no discourtesy. The name of Richard is a terror in these deserts, with which nurses frighten children and the Arab subdues his steed. Therefore the tribe is here, but not with warlike intent. Who could remain at home when there was a chance to behold Richard?"
King Richard made a low bow and a suitable reply, and then Saladin led the way to a wonderful pavilion that he had prepared for the reception of his royal guest. Everything was provided that luxury could devise, and Richard was amazed that the desert could produce such comfort.
The king removed his riding cloak and stood before Saladin in the close dress that showed his great strength and symmetry of form, in contrast to the thin frame of the Eastern monarch. It was Richard's sword that at once attracted the attention of the Saracen.
"Had I not seen this sword flaming in the thick of battle, I scarce could believe that human hand could wield so heavy a blade," said he, attempting in vain to raise the sword into the air.
"If the noble Saladin desires to see me try my strength with this sword, I will gladly show him its might and power."
To this Saladin agreed. Richard, looking around, saw an attendant with a steel mace, the handle being of the same metal, and of about an inch and a half in thickness. He signaled for the mace to be laid upon a block of wood.
One of his knights, named DeVaux, cried out in consternation, "My lord, pray not attempt so impossible a feat. The bar is of steel, and no human arm could sever it in twain. Give no triumph to the Saracen, I beg of you."
"Peace, DeVaux!" answered the king. "I know my strength and I know my good sword. Here, help me strip for this trial."
The great broadsword, wielded by both hands of the king, rose aloft to the left shoulder, circled around his head, descended with the terrific force of some powerful engine, and the bar of steel rolled on the ground in two pieces, as if a woodsman had cut a sapling in twain.
"A wonderful blow, by the head of the prophet!" cried out Saladin in utter amazement. He then examined the bar which had been cut asunder, and the blade of the sword, which was so well tempered that it did not show the least sign of being dulled or hurt by the feat it had performed.
The sultan presently said, "I would fain attempt something, also, for each land has its own exercises, and possibly Saladin may perform a trick at arms beyond even the great power of the noble Richard."
So saying, he took from the floor a cushion made of silk and the softest down, and placed it upright before him. It was so light that a breath of wind could move it across the pavilion. "Can thy weapon sever that cushion, my brother?" asked he, turning to Richard.
"Nay, surely not," replied the king. "Not even the sword of Arthur can cut that which offers no resistance!"
"Mark, then," said Saladin with a smile. Tucking up his sleeve he showed an arm, thin and brown, but strong with the blood and bone of the desert. He unsheathed his scimitar, a curved and narrow blade, of a dull blue color. Through it were thousands of lines, showing the infinite care with which the armorer had welded it into exquisite sharpness and temper.
Stepping forward, he drew the scimitar across the cushion and with apparently little effort. The cushion fell apart without even half sinking under the touch of the sultan's blade. It seemed almost to separate itself.
"A juggler's trick!" cried DeVaux, springing forward. "There is witchery in this, for no sword could perform such a miracle."
The sultan seemed to understand the doubt of the knight, and smiled at his incredulity. Taking from his face the veil which he had worn, which was made of the finest woven silk of his domains, he laid it across the edge of his sword, and then extended the blade in the air.
Slowly the veil fell into parts, as the temper of the sword severed the delicate threads. The Sultan stood without moving more than a tremble of his arm but the sharp edge of the scimitar did its work, until in a few moments the severed parts of the silk veil floated in the air.
"Behold, my brother!" said Saladin; "it is not always to the powerful that comes the victory. I know not which is best, thy mighty blow that severs the steel, or this thin blade that can divide the very marrow of men."
Soon afterward the sultan retired, leaving Richard and his followers to rest in the pavilion provided for their entertainment.