The Tale of the Severed Hand
I WAS born in Constantinople; my father was an interpreter to the Porte, and also drove a lucrative trade in scents and silk stuffs. He gave me a good education, partly teaching me himself, but I received further instruction from one of our priests. At first his intention was to take me into his shop, but as I developed greater capabilities than he had expected he followed the advice of his friends, and had me brought up as a physician, for anyone who possessed a little more knowledge than the usual quack could make his fortune in Constantinople. A good many French people came to our house, and one of them persuaded my father to let him take me back with him to his own country—to Paris—where, he said, everything I required to learn was best taught, and for nothing. Moreover, he himself was willing to pay my expenses if I returned with him. My father, who had been a traveller himself in his youth, gave his consent, and the Frenchman told me to hold myself in readiness to start in three months' time. I was wild with joy, and did not know how to bear myself, waiting for the time when we were to embark. At last the Frenchman had settled his affairs, and made final preparations for the journey. On the eve of our starting my father led me into his little sleeping-room; there on the table I saw lying weapons and beautiful dresses, but what chiefly attracted my attention was a large heap of gold pieces, for I had never before seen so many together at a time. My father embraced me, saying: "See, my son, I have provided these clothes for you to take with you on your journey; these weapons, too, are for you—they are the same that your grandfather gave me when I was first going abroad. You know how to handle them—of that I am sure—but do not use them unless you are attacked, and then strike with all your might. My store of riches is not great, but, understand, I have divided it into three portions: one is for you, one for my own provision and necessities, and the third will remain sacred and untouched, ready to serve you in time of need." It was thus my old father spoke, while the tears gathered in his eyes, perhaps from some sense of foreboding, for I never saw him again.
We had a prosperous voyage, and soon reached the French coast; another six days' journey brought us to the great city of Paris. My French friend hired a room for me, and told me to use my money, which amounted in all to two thousand dollars, carefully and economically. I spent three years in Paris, learning everything that was necessary to make me proficient in my profession; but I should not be speaking the truth if I said that I enjoyed my stay there, for the ways of the people were anything but pleasing to me; consequently I made few friends, but those I had were highminded young men.
Meanwhile I had not once received any tidings of my father, and the longing to see my home again became so urgent that I seized the first favourable opportunity of returning.
A French embassy, as it happened, was starting for the Porte, and I engaged myself as surgeon to the retinue of the envoys, and safely arrived in Stamboul. But I found my father's house shut up, and the neighbours seemed much astonished to see me; my father, they said, had died two months before. The priest, who had been my former teacher, brought me the key, and, alone and forlorn, I passed into the empty and forsaken house. I found everything just as my father had left it; only the money which he had promised to keep for me was missing. I inquired of the priest about this; he bowed, and replied: "Your father died a holy man, for he bequeathed all his money to the Church." This was incomprehensible to me, and has remained so ever since. But what was I to do? I had no proof to bring against the priest, and could only be thankful that he had not taken the house and all the goods as a legacy to himself. This was my first misfortune, but blow followed blow from this time forward.
My fame as a physician did not become widespread, for I shrank from advertising myself like an ordinary quack, and everywhere I missed my father's introduction, which would have brought me to the knowledge of the richest and most important men in the town, who now no longer gave a thought to poor Zaleukos. Then, again, my father's wares did not sell quickly, for his old customers went away when he died, and it was difficult to get new ones to come. I was sitting one day, thinking hopelessly of my affairs, when it came into my mind that I had often seen countrymen of mine going about France and selling their wares in the market-places of the various towns; and I also remembered seeing these wares very quickly sold off, for people liked to buy what came from foreign parts: that kind of business must, I felt certain, be extremely profitable. I made up my mind on the spot. I sold my paternal house, gave a part of the money I got for it to a trusty friend to keep for me, and with the remainder bought a stock of wares—such as shawls, silk stuffs, ointments, and oils, which are not generally to be had in France; took my berth on a ship, and started on my second voyage to the latter country. It seemed as though, as soon as I left the Dardanelles behind me, my good fortune returned. We had a quick and pleasant voyage. On arriving in France I went through the different towns, large and small, and everywhere found ready customers for my goods. My friend in Stamboul kept me constantly supplied with fresh stores, and I prospered more and more from day to day. When I had saved enough to make it safe for me to venture a larger undertaking I set out with my wares for Italy. I ought to add that I also made use of my profession, and this too brought me in not a little profit. On first coming to a town I sent out notices that a Greek physician had arrived who had been successful with a great many patients, and with my drugs and unguents I earned many a good gold piece. In the course of my journeyings I came at last to Florence. Here I made up my mind to stay for some time, not only because I liked the place so much, but also because I felt the need of rest after the fatigue of travelling about so continually. I, therefore, rented a shop in the St. Croce quarter of the town, and also took two charming rooms for myself, leading on to a balcony, in an inn hard by. I lost no time in sending out my circulars, introducing myself both as physician and merchant. Scarcely had I opened my shop than people came streaming in from all quarters to buy, and although I put a somewhat high price on my wares I sold more than others, for I always made myself affable and friendly towards my customers. I had already spent four pleasant days in Florence when, as I was shutting up my shop in the evening, and as usual going through my stores to see what ointments I had left, I came across, in one of the small boxes, a piece of paper which I had no remembrance of having put there. I opened it, and found written inside an invitation asking me to be, that night, punctually at twelve o'clock, on the bridge known as the Ponte Vecchio. I tried for a long time to think who it could be who had thus sent for me, but as I did not know a soul in Florence I decided that someone probably wished to take me secretly to visit a patient, which had often before been the case. I determined, therefore, to go, but took the precaution to arm myself with the sword which my father had given me.
When it was nearing midnight I started, and was soon at the Ponte Vecchio. The bridge was quiet and deserted, and I resolved to wait until whosoever it was who had asked me to come should make his appearance. It was a cold night, the moon was shining brightly, and I looked down on the rippled waters of the Arno, shimmering far away in the moonlight. The church clocks in the town struck twelve; I turned round, and there before me stood a tall man enveloped in a red cloak, a corner of which he held before his face. I was rather startled at first, for he had come up behind me so suddenly, but I quickly recovered myself, and said: "If it is you who sent for me here, say what it is you are pleased to command." The man in the red cloak turned round, and said slowly: "Follow!" But I did not feel altogether comfortable in going off alone with this unknown person, and I stood still, and said: "Not so, my good friend, I must ask you first to tell me whither I am to follow; you might also show me a little of your face, that I may be able to judge if your intentions towards me are honest." The man did not seem concerned at all at my words, and merely replied: "If you do not wish to come, Zaleukos, then stay where you are!" And he began walking away. Then my anger broke out. "Do you think," I cried, "that a man such as I am is going to let himself be fooled by every chance comer, and that I am going quietly to consent to having waited here this cold night for nothing?" With three strides I had caught him up, and, seizing hold of his mantle, I addressed him still more angrily, at the same time laying my hand on my sword, but I found the mantle had been left in my grasp, while the unknown one had disappeared round the nearest corner. My anger gradually abated; anyhow, I had the mantle, and it would surely help me to find out the meaning of this extraordinary adventure. I put the mantle round me, and went back home. I had almost reached it when someone brushed past me, whispering in French: "Take care, Count; there is nothing to be done to-night," but before I could look round the figure had gone, and I only saw a shadow gliding past the walls of the houses. That this warning was meant for the owner of the red mantle and not for me I, of course, knew, but it threw no light on the mystery. Next morning I considered within myself what to do. I at first thought that I would have the mantle cried, as if I had found it, but then the unknown man could send a third person to fetch it, and I should still have no clue to the matter. While I was thus cogitating in my own mind I began to examine the mantle more closely. It was made of thick crimson Genoese velvet, trimmed with astrachan, and richly embroidered with gold. The splendid appearance of the cloak suggested an idea to me which I decided to carry out. Taking the mantle with me into the shop I exposed it for sale, at the same time putting such a high price upon it that I felt sure no one would buy it. My object in doing this was to keep a sharp eye on everyone who asked about it, for after the unknown one had dropped his cloak I had distinctly seen his figure, although only for a moment, and I was certain that I should recognise it again among a thousand. The extraordinary beauty of the mantle attracted all eyes, and many of the customers were eager to buy, but not one of them in the least resembled the man for whom I was looking, and not one was willing to give the high price I had put upon it. It struck me also as remarkable that when I asked one or the other of them if there were a mantle like that to be found anywhere else in Florence the answer was always No, and that such a costly and elegant specimen of work had never been seen there before.
It was getting on towards evening when a young man, who had often been in my shop, and who had already that day offered a high sum of money for the cloak, again came in, and, throwing a purse of money on the table, exclaimed: "By God, Zaleukos, I must have that mantle of yours, though I have to go about as a beggar ever after," and thereupon began counting out his gold pieces. I was now in a great state of perplexity. I had only hung up the cloak on the chance of the unknown one catching sight of it, and now here was a young fool ready to pay the enormous price I asked for it. There was nothing for me to do, however, but to let him have it, and, after all, I thought, I had reason to be pleased that I was so well compensated for my night's adventure. The young man flung the cloak round him, and was leaving, when, just as he was crossing the threshold, he turned and, unfastening a piece of paper that was stuck on to the mantle, threw it to me, saying: "Here is something, Zaleukos, that does not, I think, belong to it." I picked the paper up unconcernedly, when, lo and behold, there written upon it I saw: "Bring the cloak to-night at the hour before named on to the Ponte Vecchio; four hundred gold pieces await you there." I was thunderstruck; I had, then, foolishly bartered away my good fortune, and entirely failed of my object! But I did not stay long thinking, for, gathering up the two hundred gold pieces, I rushed out after the young man who had bought the cloak, crying out: "Take back your money, good sir, and let me have the mantle; I find it impossible to part with it."
At first he took it only for a joke, but when I persisted he grew angry, called me a fool, and finally we came to blows. I was fortunate enough to get hold of the mantle while we were struggling together, and was on the point of running off with it when the young man called the police to his aid, and carried me before the judge. The latter was astonished at my behaviour, and awarded the cloak to my accuser. Then I offered the young man a sum of fifty, eighty, even a hundred, above what he had given if he would let me have the cloak back again, and what my entreaties had failed to accomplish my money was successful in procuring. He took my good gold pieces, and I returned in triumph with my property, obliged to put up with the knowledge that everyone in Florence took me for a lunatic. General opinion, however, was a matter of indifference to me, for I knew a good deal better than they did that the affair was a profitable one for myself.
I waited with impatience for the night to come; then I started, at the same hour as the previous day, with the cloak under my arm, for the Ponte Vecchio. With the last stroke of the clock the figure emerged from the darkness, and came towards me. It was unmistakably the man I had seen before. "Have you the cloak with you?" he asked. "I have," I answered, "and it has cost me a good hundred in gold pieces." "I know it," replied the other. "See, however, here are four hundred." He went with me to the side of the bridge, and counted out the money on the broad balustrade. Four hundred, sure enough, and the gleam of the gold in the moonlight made my heart dance. I little guessed, alas! that it was to be its last taste of joy. I put the money into my pocket, and then turned to have a good look at my beneficent and unknown companion, but he had a mask over his face, and I could only see the dark eyes darting terrifying glances at me. "I thank you, sir, for your kindness," I said. "What further service do you require of me? As I said to you before, however, I cannot consent to do anything that affects my honour."
"Your precaution is unnecessary," he replied as he threw his cloak over his shoulders. "I require your help as a physician not for the living but for the dead."
"How can that be?" I exclaimed in astonishment.
"I came with my sister here from a distant country," he began, making a sign to me to follow him, "and we have been living with a friend of the family. My sister died yesterday after a short illness, and the relations wish to bury her to-morrow. According to an old family custom, however, we ought all to be buried in the vault with our ancestors, and many who have died away from their native place have been embalmed and brought to lie there. I am going to give up the body to our relatives here, but the head I must send to my father, that he may see his daughter once again."
The custom of cutting off the heads of one's beloved relatives seemed a somewhat revolting one to me, but I did not venture to express my feelings for fear of offending the stranger, and I merely said that I understood how to embalm the dead, and begged him to take me to the lady who had just died. I could not, however, refrain from asking why all this should be done with such secrecy and in the night. He explained in answer that his relations were horrified at his intention, and would have prevented him carrying it out in the daytime, but if once the head were off they could say no more about it; he would, he added, have brought the head to me, but I could understand the natural feeling which held him back from doing the operation himself.
By this time we had come to a large and splendid-looking house, which my companion informed me was the goal of our midnight walk. We went past the principal entrance, and entered by a small door, which he carefully closed behind him, and then, still in the dark, went up a narrow, winding stair. It led us into a dimly-lit passage, from which we passed into a room, which was lighted by a lamp hanging from the ceiling.
There was a bed in the room, and on it lay the dead woman. The man turned aside his head, and appeared to be trying to conceal his tears; he pointed to the bed, ordered me to do my work dexterously and quickly, and left the room.
I took out my knives, which I always carried about with me in my quality of physician, and approached the bed.
Only the head of the corpse was to be seen, but this was so beautiful that I was seized involuntarily with a feeling of heartfelt compassion. The long, dark tresses of hair fell around the pale face, the eyes were closed. I first made an incision in the skin, according to the practice of surgeons when they are about to amputate a limb, after which, taking out my sharpest knife, I gave one cut right through the throat. And then, Oh, horror! the dead woman opened her eyes; she immediately, however, closed them again, and with one deep sigh seemingly then, and then only, breathed her last. At the same moment a stream of warm blood spurted out towards me from the wound, and I felt convinced that I had killed the poor thing; that she was dead now was certain, for there could be no recovery from the wound I had given. I stood for a few minutes in fearful anxiety at the thought of what had happened. Had the man with the red cloak deceived me, or had the sister really been apparently dead? The latter possibility seemed to me the most likely. I did not feel I should have the courage to tell the brother of the dead woman that probably a less hasty cut would have awakened her without killing her, and I, therefore, was anxious to finish separating the head, but the dying woman gave one more groan, stretched herself out with a convulsive movement of pain, and died. I could stand no more; overpowered with horror I rushed, shuddering, from the room. The passage outside was in darkness, for the lamp had gone out; I could see no sign of the man who had brought me there, and I had to feel my way as best I could along the wall to get to the stairs. I found them at last, and half falling, half sliding, I reached the bottom. Still there was no one to be seen. The door, however, was only pushed to, and in another moment I was in the street, and able to breathe more freely, for the atmosphere of the house had become unbearable to me. Spurred by the hideous remembrance of what had happened I tore back to my home, and there buried myself in the cushions of my couch to try and forget the terrible thing I had done. But all sleep had flown, and I lay, unable to compose myself, till the morning light warned me that I must endeavour to calm my feelings. It seemed to me unlikely that the man who had led me into the committal of this atrocious deed would betray me, so I resolved to go at once into my shop, and set about business with as undisturbed a countenance as possible. But, alas! I now for the first time became aware of another circumstance which greatly added to my trouble and agitation. My cap and my girdle, as well as my knives, were missing, and I could not be sure if I had left them in the room with the woman I had killed, or had dropped them in my flight along the road. Unfortunately, the former was the more probable case, and I ran every chance, therefore, of being taken up as the murderer.
I opened my shop at the usual hour; my neighbour, who was a talkative man, came in, as it was his custom to do every morning. "And what do you say to this dreadful thing," he began at once, "that took place last night?" I appeared not to know anything about it. "You don't mean to tell me that you have not yet heard what everyone is talking about all over the town? You haven't heard that the fairest flower of Florence, the beautiful Bianca, the daughter of the Governor, was murdered during the night? Only yesterday I saw her passing so gaily along the street with her betrothed, for to-day they were to have been married."
Every word he spoke seemed to stab me through the heart. My martyrdom was revived with every fresh customer who came in, for each had his tale to tell, the one more horrible than the other, and yet nothing that they could tell me equalled in horror that which I had seen with the eyes. About noon a police officer entered my shop, and told me to clear out the customers. "Signor Zaleukos," he said, as he drew forth the missing articles belonging to me, "do these things belong to you?" I considered for a moment whether I would not deny all acquaintance with them, but, happening to catch sight through the half-open door of my landlord and several other people who knew me, and who could certainly witness against me, I decided that I had better not make matters worse for myself by lying, and confessed my ownership of the said articles. The police officer then ordered me to follow him, and he conducted me to a large building, which I soon found out was the prison; there he assigned me a room, in which to await further proceedings.
My condition was truly pitiable as I sat there alone thinking over the terrible position I was in. The thought of having committed murder, even involuntarily, haunted me continually; what was more, I could not conceal from myself that I had been tempted by the glitter of gold, otherwise I should not have fallen so blindly into the trap laid for me. Two hours after my arrest I was again summoned. On leaving the room I was taken down a long flight of stairs, and then into a large hall. Here I saw twelve men, mostly grey-haired, seated round a long table which was hung with black. The sides of the hall were lined with seats, now occupied by the most distinguished persons in Florence, and the galleries above were packed with spectators. As I stepped in front of the table a man with a gloomy and sorrowful countenance arose—it was the Governor. He spoke to those assembled there, saying that as he was the father in this case he could not be the judge, and that he, therefore, abdicated his post for the present in favour of the eldest of the Senators. The eldest of the Senators was an old man of at least ninety years of age; he stooped in standing, and his temples were covered with thin white hairs, but the eyes had not lost their fire, and the voice was firm and strong. He began by asking me if I confessed the murder. I begged to be allowed to speak, and then fearlessly, and in a clear voice, I related what I had done and all that I knew. I noticed that the Governor turned first white then red as I proceeded with my narration, and when I had finished he started up, crying out furiously. "What, you miserable wretch! You want to lay upon another man the burden of a crime which you yourself committed out of avarice?" The Senator rebuked him for thus interrupting, since he had resigned his office of his own free will; and also, he added, it was by no means proved that I had committed the crime out of avarice, since, according to his own statement, nothing had been stolen from the victim. He went further still, and told the Governor that he would have to give particulars of his daughter's former life, since in that way only could it be decided whether I had spoken the truth or not. He then adjourned the case for that day, so that he might examine the papers of the deceased, which the Governor would hand over to him. I was taken back to prison, where I passed a miserable day, eagerly hoping all the time that some sort of connection might be traced between the murdered woman and the red cloak. I entered the Court of Justice the next morning, buoyed up with hope; several letters were lying on the table, and the old Senator asked me if they were in my handwriting. I looked at them and saw at once that they must have been written by the same person who had sent me the two notes. This I declared to the Senators, but they seemed to take no notice of my words, and only answered that it was quite certain that no one but myself could have written them, as they were signed with a Z, the first letter of my name. The letters were full of threats addressed to the deceased, and warnings against the marriage that she was on the eve of contracting.
The Governor must have given some curious information concerning me, for I was treated with much greater severity and suspicion than the day before. I referred them, for evidence of my good character, to the papers which would be found in my rooms; but I was informed that they had already been searched, and that nothing had been forthcoming. By the close of this day's hearing I had given up all hope, and on being brought up again on the third day my sentence was read out to me: I was convicted of a premeditated murder, and condemned to death. To this terrible pass had matters now come; there was I, bereft of everything on earth that was still dear to me, far from my home, an innocent victim, condemned in the prime of life to suffer death by the hands of the executioners!
I was sitting in my solitary cell on the evening of the terrible day that had decided my fate for me, with all hope extinguished, and endeavouring earnestly to fix my thoughts on death, when the door of my prison opened, and in walked a man, who stood regarding me for some moments without speaking. "And is it thus that I see you again, Zaleukos?" he said. I had not recognised him by the dull light of the lamp, but the sound of his voice awoke in me some old remembrance. It was Valetty, one of the few who had been my friends during my student days at Paris. He then told me that he had been passing accidentally through Florence, where his father held a prominent position, and, being told my history, he had come to see me once again, and to hear from my own mouth how I had been led into committing such a fearful crime. I then gave him a full account of the whole affair. It seemed to him a most extraordinary tale, and he implored me to tell him, my only friend, the whole truth, that I might not leave the world with a lie upon my lips. I swore to him, with the most solemn oath, that every word I had told him was true, and that one sin alone pressed upon my conscience—the sin of having so allowed myself to be dazzled with the sight of the gold that I had not been alive to the improbability of the tale that was told me by the stranger.
"You did not know Bianca, then?" my friend asked.
I assured him that I had never even seen her. Valetty then went on to say that a great mystery hung over the whole affair; the Governor had urged on my sentence, and it was now generally rumoured among the people that I had been acquainted with Bianca for a long time, and had killed her, out of revenge, when I learned that she was about to marry someone else. I pointed out to him that all this might very well apply to the man with the red cloak, but that I had no means of proving his complicity in the deed. Valetty embraced me, weeping, and promised to do everything in his power at least to save my life. I had little hope; but I knew that Valetty was a clever man, and versed in the law, and that he would do all he could to rescue me. For two whole days I waited in suspense, but at last Valetty reappeared.
"I bring you some comfort, although but of a sorry kind," he said. "You are to be set free and allowed to live, but with the loss of one hand."
I was deeply moved, and thanked my friend for having thus saved my life. The Governor, he told me, had been deaf to all entreaties that the case might be heard again; at last, not wishing to appear unjust, he had so far given in that he had consented, if a similar case could be found among the historical records of the town, to adjust his sentence to the one then passed on the criminal. My friend and his father had been day and night studying the old books, and at last had come across a case that agreed with mine. The sentence ran: "His left hand shall be cut off, his goods confiscated, and he himself banished for ever." And such was now to be my sentence, and I had now to prepare myself for the agonising moment which awaited me. I will not describe to you that terrible scene when I laid my hand on the block in the open market-place and became covered with my own blood.
Valetty took me into his own house until my wound was cured, and then he generously supplied me with travelling money, for the State took possession of everything that I had so laboriously earned. On leaving Florence I went first to Sicily, and sailed from there by the first ship to Constantinople. The sum of money I had left with my friend there was something for me to depend upon, and I also begged him to allow me to take up my abode with him; to my astonishment he asked me why I did not go and live in my own house. A stranger, he continued, had bought a house in the Greek quarter under my name, and had informed the neighbours that I was soon returning myself. I immediately started off with my friend to see the house, and was welcomed by all my old acquaintances. One of the older merchants gave me a letter which had been left for me by the man who had bought the house.
It ran thus: "Zaleukos! Two hands are ready and eagerly longing to do everything that may prevent you from feeling the loss of one. The house that you see, and everything inside it, is yours, and every year money will be paid to you, which will set you among the richest of the land. May you one day forgive him who is more unhappy than yourself." I had no difficulty in guessing who had thus written to me, and on inquiring further the merchant told me that it was a man whom he took for a Frenchman, and that he wore a red cloak. Knowing what I did, I confessed to myself that the unknown one could not be entirely bereft of all nobler feeling. I found my new house furnished with the best of everything, and also a shop fitted up with wares far more beautiful than any I had had before.
Ten years have passed since then, and I still travel about for business purposes—more out of old habit, however, than because I have any need to do so—but I have never again visited the country where such trouble fell upon me. Every year since then I have received regularly a thousand gold pieces; but although it is some source of gladness to me that the unhappy man acts thus nobly on my behalf, no money can repay me for the sorrow I carry about at heart, for I see ever before me, with unabated horror, the picture of the murdered Bianca.
With these words Zaleukos the Greek merchant brought his tale to an end. The others had all listened to it with profound interest; the stranger, particularly, seemed greatly moved by it, and had sighed deeply once or twice during the recital, and Muley appeared at one point to have tears in his eyes. They talked together over the tale for a long time.
"And do you not feel a hatred towards that unknown man who so shamefully occasioned you the loss of one of your best limbs, who even brought your life into danger?"
"Formerly," replied the Greek, "there were, indeed, hours when I arraigned him in my heart before God for having brought this trouble upon me and poisoned my whole life; but I found consolation in the faith of my fathers, which bids us forgive our enemies; and, more than that, I know that he is far unhappier than I am."
"You are a noble-hearted man!" cried the stranger, and he grasped the Greek's hand with emotion.
Their conversation was interrupted by the captain of the escort, who came into the tent with a look of anxiety on his face to warn us that it was not safe to go to rest, as this was the place where the caravans were generally attacked; what was more, his men thought they could see a party of horsemen in the distance. The merchants were greatly terrified on hearing this; their fear surprised Selim, the stranger, for, considering that they were so well armed, he did not see what they had to be alarmed at in a troop of thievish Arabs.
"Indeed, sir," answered the bearer of the news, "if it were but such ordinary rabble as that we might go to sleep in peace, but for some time past the terrible Orbasan has been showing himself again, and one has need, therefore, to be on one's guard."
The stranger was anxious to know who this Orbasan was, and the old merchant Achmed told him that there were all kinds of legends current among the people concerning this extraordinary man. "Some of them," he said, "look upon him as a superhuman being, for he often sustains a fight with only five or six men; others think that he is a brave Frenchman whom misfortune of some kind has driven into this neighbourhood; but what is best and most certainly known about him is that he is an infamous highwayman and robber."
"But you cannot positively assert that," put in Lezah, one of the merchants. "Even if he is a robber he is, notwithstanding, a man of nobility of heart, and as such he proved himself to my brother, as I could relate to you. All of his tribe now are well-disciplined men, and as long as he is wandering about the desert no other tribe dares to show itself. Neither does he rob in the same way that others do; he only levies money on the caravans for their safe protection, and those that pay it without demur can continue their journey in security, for Orbasan is Lord of the Desert."
Such was the talk that went on within the tent, but the men who were stationed on guard around the encampment began to grow uneasy. A somewhat considerable party of horsemen could now be seen about a mile and a half off, and they appeared to be riding straight towards the encampment. One of the men, therefore, went into the tent to give warning that, in all probability, they would be shortly attacked. The merchants consulted with one another what was best to be done: whether they should ride out to meet them or wait on the spot for the attack. Achmed and the two older merchants advised the latter, but the fiery-tempered Muley and Zaleukos wanted to follow out the first idea, and called to the stranger to side with them. He, however, quietly drew from his girdle a small blue handkerchief, dotted with red stars, which he tied to the head of a lance, and then ordered one of the slaves to stick it up on the tent; he would wager his life, he said, that when the riders saw this ensign they would ride quietly past. Muley doubted the success of this measure, but the slave, nevertheless, stuck up the lance as commanded. Meanwhile everyone inside the encampment had seized his arms, and was watching with anxiety the approach of the riders. The latter, however, apparently caught sight of the sign erected over the tent, for they suddenly changed their course, and made a wide sweep in the opposite direction.
The travellers stood for some minutes gazing with astonishment, first at the horsemen, and then at the stranger. The latter appeared quite unconcerned, as if nothing had happened, and remained looking out over the far-stretching plain. Muley at length broke the silence. "Who are you, stranger, that you have the power to tame the wild hordes of the desert with a mere bit of rag?"
"You esteem my power at a higher rate than it is worth," replied Selim Baruch. "I furnished myself with that ensign when I escaped from my imprisonment. Of what it signifies I myself am ignorant; all I know is, that whoever displays it travels under powerful protection."
The merchants thanked the stranger, and addressed him as their deliverer; and, indeed, the number of the horsemen had been such, that the caravan would not have been able to hold out long.
They now retired to rest with lighter hearts, and when the sun began to sink and the evening breeze to blow across the desert they broke up their encampment, and started afresh on their journey.
The next day they halted only about a day's journey from the edge of the desert, and the travellers having assembled as usual in the large tent Lezah, the merchant, began the conversation, and said:
"I was telling you yesterday that the dreaded Orbasan was a noble-minded man; will you allow me to-day to prove this to you by relating my brother's story? My father was Cadi at Alcara; he had three children, of whom I was the eldest, my brother and sister being both much younger than I was. I was twenty years of age when my father's brother sent for me; he appointed me heir to his property, on condition that I should remain with him till he died. He lived, however, to a great age, so that it was not till two years ago that I went back to my home, knowing nothing of the misfortune that had befallen my family, and of the merciful way in which Allah had overruled it."