A Comedy of Woman-Worship
JAMES BRANCH CABELL
"En cor gentil domnei per mort no passa."
SARAH READ McADAMS
IN GRATITUDE AND AFFECTION
"The complication of opinions and ideas, of affections and habits, which prompted the chevalier to devote himself to the service of a lady, and by which he strove to prove to her his love, and to merit hers in return, was expressed, in the language of the Troubadours, by a single word, by the word domnei, a derivation of domna, which may be regarded as an alteration of the Latin domina, lady, mistress."
—C. C. FAURIEL, History of Provencal Poetry.
I HOW PERION WAS UNMASKED
II HOW THE VICOMTE WAS VERY GAY
III HOW MELICENT WOOED
IV HOW THE BISHOP AIDED PERION
V HOW MELICENT WEDDED
VI HOW MELICENT SOUGHT OVERSEA
VII HOW PERION WAS FREED
VIII HOW DEMETRIOS WAS AMUSED
IX HOW TIME SPED IN HEATHENRY
X HOW DEMETRIOS WOOED
XI HOW TIME SPED WITH PERION
XII HOW DEMETRIOS WAS TAKEN
XIII HOW THEY PRAISED MELICENT
XIV HOW PERION BRAVED THEODORET.
XV HOW PERION FOUGHT
XVI HOW DEMETRIOS MEDITATED.
XVII HOW A MINSTREL CAME
XVIII HOW THEY CRIED QUITS
XIX HOW FLAMBERGE WAS LOST
XX HOW PERION GOT AID
XXI HOW DEMETRIOS HELD HIS CHATTEL
XXII HOW MISERY HELD NACUMERA.
XXIII HOW DEMETRIOS CRIED FAREWELL
XXIV HOW ORESTES RULED
XXV HOW WOMEN TALKED TOGETHER
XXVI HOW MEN ORDERED MATTERS
XXVII HOW AHASUERUS WAS CANDID
XXVIII HOW PERION SAW MELICENT
XXIX HOW A BARGAIN WAS CRIED
XXX HOW MELICENT CONQUERED
By Joseph Hergesheimer
It would be absorbing to discover the present feminine attitude toward the profoundest compliment ever paid women by the heart and mind of men in league—the worshipping devotion conceived by Plato and elevated to a living faith in mediaeval France. Through that renaissance of a sublimated passion domnei was regarded as a throne of alabaster by the chosen figures of its service: Melicent, at Bellegarde, waiting for her marriage with King Theodoret, held close an image of Perion made of substance that time was powerless to destroy; and which, in a life of singular violence, where blood hung scarlet before men's eyes like a tapestry, burned in a silver flame untroubled by the fate of her body. It was, to her, a magic that kept her inviolable, perpetually, in spite of marauding fingers, a rose in the blanched perfection of its early flowering.
The clearest possible case for that religion was that it transmuted the individual subject of its adoration into the deathless splendor of a Madonna unique and yet divisible in a mirage of earthly loveliness. It was heaven come to Aquitaine, to the Courts of Love, in shapes of vivid fragrant beauty, with delectable hair lying gold on white samite worked in borders of blue petals. It chose not abstractions for its faith, but the most desirable of all actual—yes, worldly—incentives: the sister, it might be, of Count Emmerick of Poictesme. And, approaching beatitude not so much through a symbol of agony as by the fragile grace of a woman, raising Melicent to the stars, it fused, more completely than in any other aspiration, the spirit and the flesh.
However, in its contact, its lovers' delight, it was no more than a slow clasping and unclasping of the hands; the spirit and flesh, merged, became spiritual; the height of stars was not a figment.... Here, since the conception of domnei has so utterly vanished, the break between the ages impassable, the sympathy born of understanding is interrupted. Hardly a woman, to-day, would value a sigh the passion which turned a man steadfastly away that he might be with her forever beyond the parched forest of death. Now such emotion is held strictly to the gains, the accountability, of life's immediate span; women have left their cloudy magnificence for a footing on earth; but—at least in warm graceful youth—their dreams are still of a Perion de la Foret. These, clear-eyed, they disavow; yet their secret desire, the most Elysian of all hopes, to burn at once with the body and the soul, mocks what they find.
That vision, dominating Mr. Cabell's pages, the record of his revealed idealism, brings specially to Domnei a beauty finely escaping the dusty confusion of any present. It is a book laid in a purity, a serenity, of space above the vapors, the bigotry and engendered spite, of dogma and creed. True to yesterday, it will be faithful of to-morrow; for, in the evolution of humanity, not necessarily the turn of a wheel upward, certain qualities have remained at the center, undisturbed. And, of these, none is more fixed than an abstract love.
Different in men than in women, it is, for the former, an instinct, a need, to serve rather than be served: their desire is for a shining image superior, at best, to both lust and maternity. This consciousness, grown so dim that it is scarcely perceptible, yet still alive, is not extinguished with youth, but lingers hopeless of satisfaction through the incongruous years of middle age. There is never a man, gifted to any degree with imagination, but eternally searches for an ultimate loveliness not disappearing in the circle of his embrace—the instinctively Platonic gesture toward the only immortality conceivable in terms of ecstasy.
A truth, now, in very low esteem! With the solidification of society, of property, the bond of family has been tremendously exalted, the mere fact of parenthood declared the last sanctity. Together with this, naturally, the persistent errantry of men, so vulgarly misunderstood, has become only a reprehensible paradox. The entire shelf of James Branch Cabell's books, dedicated to an unquenchable masculine idealism, has, as well, a paradoxical place in an age of material sentimentality. Compared with the novels of the moment, Domnei is an isolated, a heroic fragment of a vastly deeper and higher structure. And, of its many aspects, it is not impossible that the highest, rising over even its heavenly vision, is the rare, the simple, fortitude of its statement.
Whatever dissent the philosophy of Perion and Melicent may breed, no one can fail to admire the steady courage with which it is upheld. Aside from its special preoccupation, such independence in the face of ponderable threat, such accepted isolation, has a rare stability in a world treacherous with mental quicksands and evasions. This is a valor not drawn from insensibility, but from the sharpest possible recognition of all the evil and Cyclopean forces in existence, and a deliberate engagement of them on their own ground. Nothing more, in that direction, can be asked of Mr. Cabell, of anyone. While about the story itself, the soul of Melicent, the form and incidental writing, it is no longer necessary to speak.
The pages have the rich sparkle of a past like stained glass called to life: the Confraternity of St. Medard presenting their masque of Hercules; the claret colored walls adorned with gold cinquefoils of Demetrios' court; his pavilion with porticoes of Andalusian copper; Theodoret's capital, Megaris, ruddy with bonfires; the free port of Narenta with its sails spread for the land of pagans; the lichen-incrusted glade in the Forest of Columbiers; gardens with the walks sprinkled with crocus and vermilion and powdered mica ... all are at once real and bright with unreality, rayed with the splendor of an antiquity built from webs and films of imagined wonder. The past is, at its moment, the present, and that lost is valueless. Distilled by time, only an imperishable romantic conception remains; a vision, where it is significant, animated by the feelings, the men and women, which only, at heart, are changeless.
They, the surcharged figures of Domnei, move vividly through their stone galleries and closes, in procession, and—a far more difficult accomplishment—alone. The lute of the Bishop of Montors, playing as he rides in scarlet, sounds its Provencal refrain; the old man Theodoret, a king, sits shabbily between a prie-dieu and the tarnished hangings of his bed; Melusine, with the pale frosty hair of a child, spins the melancholy of departed passion; Ahasuerus the Jew buys Melicent for a hundred and two minae and enters her room past midnight for his act of abnegation. And at the end, looking, perhaps, for a mortal woman, Perion finds, in a flesh not unscarred by years, the rose beyond destruction, the high silver flame of immortal happiness.
So much, then, everything in the inner questioning of beings condemned to a glimpse of remote perfection, as though the sky had opened on a city of pure bliss, transpires in Domnei; while the fact that it is laid in Poictesme sharpens the thrust of its illusion. It is by that much the easier of entry; it borders—rather than on the clamor of mills—on the reaches men explore, leaving' weariness and dejection for fancy—a geography for lonely sensibilities betrayed by chance into the blind traps, the issueless barrens, of existence.
And Norman Nicolas at hearte meant (Pardie!) some subtle occupation In making of his Tale of Melicent, That stubbornly desired Perion. What perils for to rollen up and down, So long process, so many a sly cautel, For to obtain a silly damosel!
Nicolas de Caen, one of the most eminent of the early French writers of romance, was born at Caen in Normandy early in the 15th century, and was living in 1470. Little is known of his life, apart from the fact that a portion of his youth was spent in England, where he was connected in some minor capacity with the household of the Queen Dowager, Joan of Navarre. In later life, from the fact that two of his works are dedicated to Isabella of Portugal, third wife to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, it is conjectured that Nicolas was attached to the court of that prince . . . . Nicolas de Caen was not greatly esteemed nor highly praised by his contemporaries, or by writers of the century following, but latterly has received the recognition due to his unusual qualities of invention and conduct of narrative, together with his considerable knowledge of men and manners, and occasional remarkable modernity of thought. His books, therefore, apart from the interest attached to them as specimens of early French romance, and in spite of the difficulties and crudities of the unformed language in which they are written, are still readable, and are rich in instructive detail concerning the age that gave them birth . . . . Many romances are attributed to Nicolas de Caen. Modern criticism has selected four only as undoubtedly his. These are—(1) Les Aventures d'Adhelmar de Nointel, a metrical romance, plainly of youthful composition, containing some seven thousand verses; (2) Le Roy Amaury, well known to English students in Watson's spirited translation; (3) Le Roman de Lusignan, a re-handling of the Melusina myth, most of which is wholly lost; (4) Le Dizain des Reines, a collection of quasi-historical novellino interspersed with lyrics. Six other romances are known to have been written by Nicolas, but these have perished; and he is credited with the authorship of Le Cocu Rouge, included by Hinsauf, and of several Ovidian translations or imitations still unpublished. The Satires formerly attributed to him Buelg has shown to be spurious compositions of 17th century origin.
—E. Noel Codman, Handbook of Literary Pioneers.
Nicolas de Caen est un representant agreable, naif, et expressif de cet age que nous aimons a nous representer de loin comme l'age d'or du bon vieux temps ... Nicolas croyait a son Roy et a sa Dame, il croyait surtout a son Dieu. Nicolas sentait que le monde etait seme a chaque pas d'obscurites et d'embuches, et que l'inconnu etait partout; partout aussi etait le protecteur invisible et le soutien; a chaque souffle qui fremissait, Nicolas croyait le sentir comme derriere le rideau. Le ciel par-dessus ce Nicolas de Caen etait ouvert, peuple en chaque point de figures vivantes, de patrons attentifs et manifestes, d'une invocation directe. Le plus intrepide guerrier alors marchait dans un melange habituel de crainte et de confiance, comme un tout petit enfant. A cette vue, les esprits les plus emancipes d'aujourd'hui ne sauraient s'empecher de crier, en temperant leur sourire par le respect: Sancta simplicitas!
—Paul Verville, Notice sur la vie de Nicolas de Caen.
_"Of how, through Woman-Worship, knaves compound With honoure; Kings reck not of their domaine; Proud Pontiffs sigh; & War-men world-renownd, Toe win one Woman, all things else disdaine: Since Melicent doth in herselfe contayne All this world's Riches that may farre be found.
"If Saphyres ye desire, her eies are plaine; If Rubies, loe, hir lips be Rubyes sound; If Pearles, hir teeth be Pearles, both pure & round; If Yvorie, her forehead Yvory weene; If Gold, her locks with finest Gold abound; If Silver, her faire hands have Silver's sheen.
"Yet that which fayrest is, but Few beholde, Her Soul adornd with vertues manifold."_
—SIR WILLIAM ALLONBY.
THE ROMANCE OF LUSIGNAN OF THAT FORGOTTEN MAKER IN THE FRENCH TONGUE, MESSIRE NICOLAS DE CAEN. HERE BEGINS THE TALE WHICH THEY OF POICTESME NARRATE CONCERNING DAME MELICENT, THAT WAS DAUGHTER TO THE GREAT COUNT MANUEL.
PERION How Perion, that stalwart was and gay, Treadeth with sorrow on a holiday, Since Melicent anon must wed a king: How in his heart he hath vain love-longing, For which he putteth life in forfeiture, And would no longer in such wise endure; For writhing Perion in Venus' fire So burneth that he dieth for desire.
How Perion Was Unmasked
Perion afterward remembered the two weeks spent at Bellegarde as in recovery from illness a person might remember some long fever dream which was all of an intolerable elvish brightness and of incessant laughter everywhere. They made a deal of him in Count Emmerick's pleasant home: day by day the outlaw was thrust into relations of mirth with noblemen, proud ladies, and even with a king; and was all the while half lightheaded through his singular knowledge as to how precariously the self-styled Vicomte de Puysange now balanced himself, as it were, upon a gilded stepping-stone from infamy to oblivion.
Now that King Theodoret had withdrawn his sinister presence, young Perion spent some seven hours of every day alone, to all intent, with Dame Melicent. There might be merry people within a stone's throw, about this recreation or another, but these two seemed to watch aloofly, as royal persons do the antics of their hired comedians, without any condescension into open interest. They were together; and the jostle of earthly happenings might hope, at most, to afford them matter for incurious comment.
They sat, as Perion thought, for the last time together, part of an audience before which the Confraternity of St. Medard was enacting a masque of The Birth of Hercules. The Bishop of Montors had returned to Bellegarde that evening with his brother, Count Gui, and the pleasure-loving prelate had brought these mirth-makers in his train. Clad in scarlet, he rode before them playing upon a lute—unclerical conduct which shocked his preciser brother and surprised nobody.
In such circumstances Perion began to speak with an odd purpose, because his reason was bedrugged by the beauty and purity of Melicent, and perhaps a little by the slow and clutching music to whose progress the chorus of Theban virgins was dancing. When he had made an end of harsh whispering, Melicent sat for a while in scrupulous appraisement of the rushes. The music was so sweet it seemed to Perion he must go mad unless she spoke within the moment.
Then Melicent said:
"You tell me you are not the Vicomte de Puysange. You tell me you are, instead, the late King Helmas' servitor, suspected of his murder. You are the fellow that stole the royal jewels—the outlaw for whom half Christendom is searching—"
Thus Melicent began to speak at last; and still he could not intercept those huge and tender eyes whose purple made the thought of heaven comprehensible.
The man replied:
"I am that widely hounded Perion of the Forest. The true vicomte is the wounded rascal over whose delirium we marvelled only last Tuesday. Yes, at the door of your home I attacked him, fought him—hah, but fairly, madame!—and stole his brilliant garments and with them his papers. Then in my desperate necessity I dared to masquerade. For I know enough about dancing to estimate that to dance upon air must necessarily prove to everybody a disgusting performance, but pre-eminently unpleasing to the main actor. Two weeks of safety till the Tranchemer sailed I therefore valued at a perhaps preposterous rate. To-night, as I have said, the ship lies at anchor off Manneville."
Melicent said an odd thing, asking, "Oh, can it be you are a less despicable person than you are striving to appear!"
"Rather, I am a more unmitigated fool than even I suspected, since when affairs were in a promising train I have elected to blurt out, of all things, the naked and distasteful truth. Proclaim it now; and see the late Vicomte de Puysange lugged out of this hall and after appropriate torture hanged within the month." And with that Perion laughed.
Thereafter he was silent. As the masque went, Amphitryon had newly returned from warfare, and was singing under Alcmena's window in the terms of an aubade, a waking-song. "_Rei glorios, verais lums e clardatz—" Amphitryon had begun. Dame Melicent heard him through.
And after many ages, as it seemed to Perion, the soft and brilliant and exquisite mouth was pricked to motion.
"You have affronted, by an incredible imposture and beyond the reach of mercy, every listener in this hall. You have injured me most deeply of all persons here. Yet it is to me alone that you confess."
Perion leaned forward. You are to understand that, through the incurrent necessities of every circumstance, each of them spoke in whispers, even now. It was curious to note the candid mirth on either side. Mercury was making his adieux to Alcmena's waiting-woman in the middle of a jig.
"But you," sneered Perion, "are merciful in all things. Rogue that I am, I dare to build on this notorious fact. I am snared in a hard golden trap, I cannot get a guide to Manneville, I cannot even procure a horse from Count Emmerick's stables without arousing fatal suspicions; and I must be at Manneville by dawn or else be hanged. Therefore I dare stake all upon one throw; and you must either save or hang me with unwashed hands. As surely as God reigns, my future rests with you. And as I am perfectly aware, you could not live comfortably with a gnat's death upon your conscience. Eh, am I not a seasoned rascal?"
"Do not remind me now that you are vile," said Melicent. "Ah, no, not now!"
"Lackey, impostor, and thief!" he sternly answered. "There you have the catalogue of all my rightful titles. And besides, it pleases me, for a reason I cannot entirely fathom, to be unpardonably candid and to fling my destiny into your lap. To-night, as I have said, the Tranchemer lies off Manneville; keep counsel, get me a horse if you will, and to-morrow I am embarked for desperate service under the harried Kaiser of the Greeks, and for throat-cuttings from which I am not likely ever to return. Speak, and I hang before the month is up."
Dame Melicent looked at him now, and within the moment Perion was repaid, and bountifully, for every folly and misdeed of his entire life.
"What harm have I ever done you, Messire de la Foret, that you should shame me in this fashion? Until to-night I was not unhappy in the belief I was loved by you. I may say that now without paltering, since you are not the man I thought some day to love. You are but the rind of him. And you would force me to cheat justice, to become a hunted thief's accomplice, or else to murder you!"
"It comes to that, madame."
"Then I must help you preserve your life by any sorry stratagems you may devise. I shall not hinder you. I will procure you a guide to Manneville. I will even forgive you all save one offence, since doubtless heaven made you the foul thing you are." The girl was in a hot and splendid rage. "For you love me. Women know. You love me. You!"
"Look into my face! and say what horrid writ of infamy you fancied was apparent there, that my nails may destroy it."
"I am all base," he answered, "and yet not so profoundly base as you suppose. Nay, believe me, I had never hoped to win even such scornful kindness as you might accord your lapdog. I have but dared to peep at heaven while I might, and only as lost Dives peeped. Ignoble as I am, I never dreamed to squire an angel down toward the mire and filth which is henceforward my inevitable kennel."
"The masque is done," said Melicent, "and yet you talk, and talk, and talk, and mimic truth so cunningly—Well, I will send some trusty person to you. And now, for God's sake!—nay, for the fiend's love who is your patron!—let me not ever see you again, Messire de la Foret."
How the Vicomte Was Very Gay
There was dancing afterward and a sumptuous supper. The Vicomte de Puysange was generally accounted that evening the most excellent of company. He mingled affably with the revellers and found a prosperous answer for every jest they broke upon the projected marriage of Dame Melicent and King Theodoret; and meanwhile hugged the reflection that half the realm was hunting Perion de la Foret in the more customary haunts of rascality. The springs of Perion's turbulent mirth were that to-morrow every person in the room would discover how impudently every person had been tricked, and that Melicent deliberated even now, and could not but admire, the hunted outlaw's insolence, however much she loathed its perpetrator; and over this thought in particular Perion laughed like a madman.
"You are very gay to-night, Messire de Puysange," said the Bishop of Montors.
This remarkable young man, it is necessary to repeat, had reached Bellegarde that evening, coming from Brunbelois. It was he (as you have heard) who had arranged the match with Theodoret. The bishop himself loved his cousin Melicent; but, now that he was in holy orders and possession of her had become impossible, he had cannily resolved to utilise her beauty, as he did everything else, toward his own preferment.
"Oh, sir," replied Perion, "you who are so fine a poet must surely know that gay rhymes with to-day as patly as sorrow goes with to-morrow."
"Yet your gay laughter, Messire de Puysange, is after all but breath: and breath also"—the bishop's sharp eyes fixed Perion's—"has a hackneyed rhyme."
"Indeed, it is the grim rhyme that rounds off and silences all our rhyming," Perion assented. "I must laugh, then, without rhyme or reason."
Still the young prelate talked rather oddly. "But," said he, "you have an excellent reason, now that you sup so near to heaven." And his glance at Melicent did not lack pith.
"No, no, I have quite another reason," Perion answered; "it is that to-morrow I breakfast in hell."
"Well, they tell me the landlord of that place is used to cater to each according to his merits," the bishop, shrugging, returned.
And Perion thought how true this was when, at the evening's end, he was alone in his own room. His life was tolerably secure. He trusted Ahasuerus the Jew to see to it that, about dawn, one of the ship's boats would touch at Fomor Beach near Manneville, according to their old agreement. Aboard the Tranchemer the Free Companions awaited their captain; and the savage land they were bound for was a thought beyond the reach of a kingdom's lamentable curiosity concerning the whereabouts of King Helmas' treasure. The worthless life of Perion was safe.
For worthless, and far less than worthless, life seemed to Perion as he thought of Melicent and waited for her messenger. He thought of her beauty and purity and illimitable loving-kindness toward every person in the world save only Perion of the Forest. He thought of how clean she was in every thought and deed; of that, above all, he thought, and he knew that he would never see her any more.
"Oh, but past any doubting," said Perion, "the devil caters to each according to his merits."
How Melicent Wooed
Then Perion knew that vain regret had turned his brain, very certainly, for it seemed the door had opened and Dame Melicent herself had come, warily, into the panelled gloomy room. It seemed that Melicent paused in the convulsive brilliancy of the firelight, and stayed thus with vaguely troubled eyes like those of a child newly wakened from sleep.
And it seemed a long while before she told Perion very quietly that she had confessed all to Ayrart de Montors, and had, by reason of de Montors' love for her, so goaded and allured the outcome of their talk—"ignobly," as she said,—that a clean-handed gentleman would come at three o'clock for Perion de la Foret, and guide a thief toward unmerited impunity. All this she spoke quite levelly, as one reads aloud from a book; and then, with a signal change of voice, Melicent said: "Yes, that is true enough. Yet why, in reality, do you think I have in my own person come to tell you of it?"
"Madame, I may not guess. Hah, indeed, indeed," Perion cried, because he knew the truth and was unspeakably afraid, "I dare not guess!"
"You sail to-morrow for the fighting oversea——" she began, but her sweet voice trailed and died into silence. He heard the crepitations of the fire, and even the hurried beatings of his own heart, as against a terrible and lovely hush of all created life. "Then take me with you."
Perion had never any recollection of what he answered. Indeed, he uttered no communicative words, but only foolish babblements.
"Oh, I do not understand," said Melicent. "It is as though some spell were laid upon me. Look you, I have been cleanly reared, I have never wronged any person that I know of, and throughout my quiet, sheltered life I have loved truth and honour most of all. My judgment grants you to be what you are confessedly. And there is that in me more masterful and surer than my judgment, that which seems omniscient and lightly puts aside your confessings as unimportant."
"Lackey, impostor, and thief!" young Perion answered. "There you have the catalogue of all my rightful titles fairly earned."
"And even if I believed you, I think I would not care! Is that not strange? For then I should despise you. And even then, I think, I would fling my honour at your feet, as I do now, and but in part with loathing, I would still entreat you to make of me your wife, your servant, anything that pleased you . . . . Oh, I had thought that when love came it would be sweet!"
Strangely quiet, in every sense, he answered:
"It is very sweet. I have known no happier moment in my life. For you stand within arm's reach, mine to touch, mine to possess and do with as I elect. And I dare not lift a finger. I am as a man that has lain for a long while in a dungeon vainly hungering for the glad light of day—who, being freed at last, must hide his eyes from the dear sunlight he dare not look upon as yet. Ho, I am past speech unworthy of your notice! and I pray you now speak harshly with me, madame, for when your pure eyes regard me kindly, and your bright and delicate lips have come thus near to mine, I am so greatly tempted and so happy that I fear lest heaven grow jealous!"
"Be not too much afraid—" she murmured.
"Nay, should I then be bold? and within the moment wake Count Emmerick to say to him, very boldly, 'Beau sire, the thief half Christendom is hunting has the honour to request your sister's hand in marriage'?"
"You sail to-morrow for the fighting oversea. Take me with you."
"Indeed the feat would be worthy of me. For you are a lady tenderly nurtured and used to every luxury the age affords. There comes to woo you presently an excellent and potent monarch, not all unworthy of your love, who will presently share with you many happy and honourable years. Yonder is a lawless naked wilderness where I and my fellow desperadoes hope to cheat offended justice and to preserve thrice-forfeited lives in savagery. You bid me aid you to go into this country, never to return! Madame, if I obeyed you, Satan would protest against pollution of his ageless fires by any soul so filthy."
"You talk of little things, whereas I think of great things. Love is not sustained by palatable food alone, and is not served only by those persons who go about the world in satin."
"Then take the shameful truth. It is undeniable I swore I loved you, and with appropriate gestures, too. But, dompnedex, madame! I am past master in these specious ecstasies, for somehow I have rarely seen the woman who had not some charm or other to catch my heart with. I confess now that you alone have never quickened it. My only purpose was through hyperbole to wheedle you out of a horse, and meanwhile to have my recreation, you handsome jade!—and that is all you ever meant to me. I swear to you that is all, all, all!" sobbed Perion, for it appeared that he must die. "I have amused myself with you, I have abominably tricked you—"
Melicent only waited with untroubled eyes which seemed to plumb his heart and to appraise all which Perion had ever thought or longed for since the day that Perion was born; and she was as beautiful, it seemed to him, as the untroubled, gracious angels are, and more compassionate.
"Yes," Perion said, "I am trying to lie to you. And even at lying I fail."
She said, with a wonderful smile:
"Assuredly there were never any other persons so mad as we. For I must do the wooing, as though you were the maid, and all the while you rebuff me and suffer so that I fear to look on you. Men say you are no better than a highwayman; you confess yourself to be a thief: and I believe none of your accusers. Perion de la Foret," said Melicent, and ballad-makers have never shaped a phrase wherewith to tell you of her voice, "I know that you have dabbled in dishonour no more often than an archangel has pilfered drying linen from a hedgerow. I do not guess, for my hour is upon me, and inevitably I know! and there is nothing dares to come between us now."
"Nay,—ho, and even were matters as you suppose them, without any warrant,—there is at least one silly stumbling knave that dares as much. Saith he: 'What is the most precious thing in the world?—Why, assuredly, Dame Melicent's welfare. Let me get the keeping of it, then. For I have been entrusted with a host of common priceless things—with youth and vigour and honour, with a clean conscience and a child's faith, and so on—and no person alive has squandered them more gallantly. So heartward ho! and trust me now, my timorous yoke-fellow, to win and squander also the chiefest jewel of the world.' Eh, thus he chuckles and nudges me, with wicked whisperings. Indeed, madame, this rascal that shares equally in my least faculty is a most pitiful, ignoble rogue! and he has aforetime eked out our common livelihood by such practices as your unsullied imagination could scarcely depicture. Until I knew you I had endured him. But you have made of him a horror. A horror, a horror! a thing too pitiful for hell!"
Perion turned away from her, groaning. He flung himself into a chair. He screened his eyes as if before some physical abomination.
The girl kneeled close to him, touching him.
"My dear, my dear! then slay for me this other Perion of the Forest."
And Perion laughed, not very mirthfully.
"It is the common usage of women to ask of men this little labour, which is a harder task than ever Hercules, that mighty-muscled king of heathenry, achieved. Nay, I, for all my sinews, am an attested weakling. The craft of other men I do not fear, for I have encountered no formidable enemy save myself; but that same midnight stabber unhorsed me long ago. I had wallowed in the mire contentedly enough until you came.... Ah, child, child! why needed you to trouble me! for to-night I want to be clean as you are clean, and that I may not ever be. I am garrisoned with devils, I am the battered plaything of every vice, and I lack the strength, and it may be, even the will, to leave my mire. Always I have betrayed the stewardship of man and god alike that my body might escape a momentary discomfort! And loving you as I do, I cannot swear that in the outcome I would not betray you too, to this same end! I cannot swear—Oh, now let Satan laugh, yet not unpitifully, since he and I, alone, know all the reasons why I may not swear! Hah, Madame Melicent!" cried Perion, in his great agony, "you offer me that gift an emperor might not accept save in awed gratitude; and I refuse it." Gently he raised her to her feet. "And now, in God's name, go, madame, and leave the prodigal among his husks."
"You are a very brave and foolish gentleman," she said, "who chooses to face his own achievements without any paltering. To every man, I think, that must be bitter work; to the woman who loves him it is impossible."
Perion could not see her face, because he lay prone at the feet of Melicent, sobbing, but without any tears, and tasting very deeply of such grief and vain regret as, he had thought, they know in hell alone; and even after she had gone, in silence, he lay in this same posture for an exceedingly long while.
And after he knew not how long a while, Perion propped his chin between his hands and, still sprawling upon the rushes, stared hard into the little, crackling fire. He was thinking of a Perion de la Foret that once had been. In him might have been found a fit mate for Melicent had this boy not died very long ago.
It is no more cheerful than any other mortuary employment, this disinterment of the person you have been, and are not any longer; and so did Perion find his cataloguing of irrevocable old follies and evasions.
Then Perion arose and looked for pen and ink. It was the first letter he ever wrote to Melicent, and, as you will presently learn, she never saw it.
In such terms Perion wrote:
"Madame—It may please you to remember that when Dame Melusine and I were interrogated, I freely confessed to the murder of King Helmas and the theft of my dead master's jewels. In that I lied. For it was my manifest duty to save the woman whom, as I thought, I loved, and it was apparent that the guilty person was either she or I.
"She is now at Brunbelois, where, as I have heard, the splendour of her estate is tolerably notorious. I have not ever heard she gave a thought to me, her cat's-paw. Madame, when I think of you and then of that sleek, smiling woman, I am appalled by my own folly. I am aghast by my long blindness as I write the words which no one will believe. To what avail do I deny a crime which every circumstance imputed to me and my own confession has publicly acknowledged?
"But you, I think, will believe me. Look you, madame, I have nothing to gain of you. I shall not ever see you any more. I go into a perilous and an eternal banishment; and in the immediate neighbourhood of death a man finds little sustenance for romance. Take the worst of me: a gentleman I was born, and as a wastrel I have lived, and always very foolishly; but without dishonour. I have never to my knowledge—and God judge me as I speak the truth!—wronged any man or woman save myself. My dear, believe me! believe me, in spite of reason! and understand that my adoration and misery and unworthiness when I think of you are such as I cannot measure, and afford me no judicious moment wherein to fashion lies. For I shall not see you any more.
"I thank you, madame, for your all-unmerited kindnesses, and, oh, I pray you to believe!"
How the Bishop Aided Perion
Then at three o'clock, as Perion supposed, someone tapped upon the door. Perion went out into the corridor, which was now unlighted, so that he had to hold to the cloak of Ayrart de Montors as the young prelate guided Perion through the complexities of unfamiliar halls and stairways into an inhospitable night. There were ready two horses, and presently the men were mounted and away.
Once only Perion shifted in the saddle to glance back at Bellegarde, black and formless against an empty sky; and he dared not look again, for the thought of her that lay awake in the Marshal's Tower, so near at hand as yet, was like a dagger. With set teeth he followed in the wake of his taciturn companion. The bishop never spoke save to growl out some direction.
Thus they came to Manneville and, skirting the town, came to Fomor Beach, a narrow sandy coast. It was dark in this place and very still save for the encroachment of the tide. Yonder were four little lights, lazily heaving with the water's motion, to show them where the Tranchemer lay at anchor. It did not seem to Perion that anything mattered.
"It will be nearing dawn by this," he said.
"Ay," Ayrart de Montors said, very briefly; and his tone evinced his willingness to dispense with further conversation. Perion of the Forest was an unclean thing which the bishop must touch in his necessity, but could touch with loathing only, as a thirsty man takes a fly out of his drink. Perion conceded it, because nothing would ever matter any more; and so, the horses tethered, they sat upon the sand in utter silence for the space of a half hour.
A bird cried somewhere, just once, and with a start Perion knew the night was not quite so murky as it had been, for he could now see a broken line of white, where the tide crept up and shattered and ebbed. Then in a while a light sank tipsily to the water's level and presently was bobbing in the darkness, apart from those other lights, and it was growing in size and brilliancy.
Said Perion, "They have sent out the boat."
"Ay," the bishop answered, as before.
A sort of madness came upon Perion, and it seemed that he must weep, because everything fell out so very ill in this world.
"Messire de Montors, you have aided me. I would be grateful if you permitted it."
De Montors spoke at last, saying crisply:
"Gratitude, I take it, forms no part of the bargain. I am the kinsman of Dame Melicent. It makes for my interest and for the honour of our house that the man whose rooms she visits at night be got out of Poictesme—"
Said Perion, "You speak in this fashion of the most lovely lady God has made—of her whom the world adores!"
"Adores!" the bishop answered, with a laugh; "and what poor gull am I to adore an attested wanton?" Then, with a sneer, he spoke of Melicent, and in such terms as are not bettered by repetition.
"I am the most unhappy man alive, as surely as you are the most ungenerous. For, look you, in my presence you have spoken infamy of Dame Melicent, though knowing I am in your debt so deeply that I have not the right to resent anything you may elect to say. You have just given me my life; and armoured by the fire-new obligation, you blaspheme an angel, you condescend to buffet a fettered man—"
But with that his sluggish wits had spied an honest way out of the imbroglio.
Perion said then, "Draw, messire! for, as God lives, I may yet repurchase, at this eleventh hour, the privilege of destroying you."
"Heyday! but here is an odd evincement of gratitude!" de Montors retorted; "and though I am not particularly squeamish, let me tell you, my fine fellow, I do not ordinarily fight with lackeys."
"Nor are you fit to do so, messire. Believe me, there is not a lackey in this realm—no, not a cut-purse, nor any pander—who would not in meeting you upon equal footing degrade himself. For you have slandered that which is most perfect in the world; yet lies, Messire de Montors, have short legs; and I design within the hour to insure the calumny against an echo."
"Rogue, I have given you your very life within the hour—"
"The fact is undeniable. Thus I must fling the bounty back to you, so that we sorry scoundrels may meet as equals." Perion wheeled toward the boat, which was now within the reach of wading. "Who is among you? Gaucelm, Roger, Jean Britauz—" He found the man he sought. "Ahasuerus, the captain that was to have accompanied the Free Companions oversea is of another mind. I cede my leadership to Landry de Bonnay. You will have the kindness to inform him of the unlooked-for change, and to tender your new captain every appropriate regret and the dying felicitations of Perion de la Foret."
He bowed toward the landward twilight, where the sand hillocks were taking form.
"Messire de Montors, we may now resume our vigil. When yonder vessel sails there will be no conceivable happening that can keep breath within my body two weeks longer. I shall be quit of every debt to you. You will then fight with a man already dead if you so elect; but otherwise—if you attempt to flee this place, if you decline to cross swords with a lackey, with a convicted thief, with a suspected murderer, I swear upon my mother's honour! I will demolish you without compunction, as I would any other vermin."
"Oh, brave, brave!" sneered the bishop, "to fling away your life, and perhaps mine too, for an idle word—" But at that he fetched a sob. "How foolish of you! and how like you!" he said, and Perion wondered at this prelate's voice.
"Hey, gentlemen!" cried Ayrart de Montors, "a moment if you please!" He splashed knee-deep into the icy water, wading to the boat, where he snatched the lantern from the Jew's hands and fetched this light ashore. He held it aloft, so that Perion might see his face, and Perion perceived that, by some wonder-working, the person in man's attire who held this light aloft was Melicent. It was odd that Perion always remembered afterward most clearly of all the loosened wisp of hair the wind tossed about her forehead.
"Look well upon me, Perion," said Melicent. "Look well, ruined gentleman! look well, poor hunted vagabond! and note how proud I am. Oh, in all things I am very proud! A little I exult in my high station and in my wealth, and, yes, even in my beauty, for I know that I am beautiful, but it is the chief of all my honours that you love me—and so foolishly!"
"You do not understand—!" cried Perion.
"Rather I understand at last that you are in sober verity a lackey, an impostor, and a thief, even as you said. Ay, a lackey to your honour! an imposter that would endeavour—and, oh, so very vainly!—to impersonate another's baseness! and a thief that has stolen another person's punishment! I ask no questions; loving means trusting; but I would like to kill that other person very, very slowly. I ask no questions, but I dare to trust the man I know of, even in defiance of that man's own voice. I dare protest the man no thief, but in all things a madly honourable gentleman. My poor bruised, puzzled boy," said Melicent, with an odd mirthful tenderness, "how came you to be blundering about this miry world of ours! Only be very good for my sake and forget the bitterness; what does it matter when there is happiness, too?"
He answered nothing, but it was not because of misery.
"Come, come, will you not even help me into the boat?" said Melicent. She, too, was glad.
How Melicent Wedded
"That may not be, my cousin."
It was the real Bishop of Montors who was speaking. His company, some fifteen men in all, had ridden up while Melicent and Perion looked seaward. The bishop was clothed, in his habitual fashion, as a cavalier, showing in nothing as a churchman. He sat a-horseback for a considerable while, looking down at them, smiling and stroking the pommel of his saddle with a gold-fringed glove. It was now dawn.
"I have been eavesdropping," the bishop said. His voice was tender, for the young man loved his kinswoman with an affection second only to that which he reserved for Ayrart de Montors. "Yes, I have been eavesdropping for an instant, and through that instant I seemed to see the heart of every woman that ever lived; and they differed only as stars differ on a fair night in August. No woman ever loved a man except, at bottom, as a mother loves her child: let him elect to build a nation or to write imperishable verses or to take purses upon the highway, and she will only smile to note how breathlessly the boy goes about his playing; and when he comes back to her with grimier hands she is a little sorry, and, if she think it salutary, will pretend to be angry. Meanwhile she sets about the quickest way to cleanse him and to heal his bruises. They are more wise than we, and at the bottom of their hearts they pity us more stalwart folk whose grosser wits require, to be quite sure of anything, a mere crass proof of it; and always they make us better by indomitably believing we are better than in reality a man can ever be."
Now Ayrart de Montors dismounted.
"So much for my sermon. For the rest, Messire de la Foret, I perfectly recognised you on the day you came to Bellegarde. But I said nothing. For that you had not murdered King Helmas, as is popularly reported, I was certain, inasmuch as I happen to know he is now at Brunbelois, where Dame Melusine holds his person and his treasury. A terrible, delicious woman! begotten on a water-demon, people say. I ask no questions. She is a close and useful friend to me, and through her aid I hope to go far. You see that I am frank. It is my nature." The bishop shrugged. "In a phrase, I accepted the Vicomte de Puysange, although it was necessary, of course, to keep an eye upon your comings in and your goings out, as you now see. And until this the imposture amused me. But this"—his hand waved toward the Tranchemer—"this, my fair friends, is past a jest."
"You talk and talk," cried Perion, "while I reflect that I love the fairest lady who at any time has had life upon earth."
"The proof of your affection," the bishop returned, "is, if you will permit the observation, somewhat extraordinary. For you propose, I gather, to make of her a camp-follower, a soldier's drab. Come, come, messire! you and I are conversant with warfare as it is. Armies do not conduct encounters by throwing sugar-candy at one another. What home have you, a landless man, to offer Melicent? What place is there for Melicent among your Free Companions?"
"Oh, do I not know that!" said Perion. He turned to Melicent, and long and long they gazed upon each other.
"Ignoble as I am," said Perion, "I never dreamed to squire an angel down toward the mire and filth which for a while as yet must be my kennel. I go. I go alone. Do you bid me return?"
The girl was perfectly calm. She took a ring of diamonds from her hand, and placed it on his little finger, because the others were too large.
"While life endures I pledge you faith and service, Perion. There is no need to speak of love."
"There is no need," he answered. "Oh, does God think that I will live without you!"
"I suppose they will give me to King Theodoret. The terrible old man has set my body as the only price that will buy him off from ravaging Poictesme, and he is stronger in the field than Emmerick. Emmerick is afraid of him, and Ayrart here has need of the King's friendship in order to become a cardinal. So my kinsmen must make traffic of my eyes and lips and hair. But first I wed you, Perion, here in the sight of God, and I bid you return to me, who am your wife and servitor for ever now, whatever lesser men may do."
"I will return," he said.
Then in a little while she withdrew her lips from his lips.
"Cover my face, Ayrart. It may be I shall weep presently. Men must not see the wife of Perion weep. Cover my face, for he is going now, and I cannot watch his going."
Of how through love is Melicent upcast Under a heathen castle at the last: And how a wicked lord of proud degree, Demetrios, dwelleth in this country, Where humbled under him are all mankind: How to this wretched woman he hath mind, That fallen is in pagan lands alone, In point to die, as presently is shown.
How Melicent Sought Oversea
It is a tale which they narrate in Poictesme, telling how love began between Perion of the Forest, who was a captain of mercenaries, and young Melicent, who was daughter to the great Dom Manuel, and sister to Count Emmerick of Poictesme. They tell also how Melicent and Perion were parted, because there was no remedy, and policy demanded she should wed King Theodoret.
And the tale tells how Perion sailed with his retainers to seek desperate service under the harried Kaiser of the Greeks.
This venture was ill-fated, since, as the Free Companions were passing not far from Masillia, their vessel being at the time becalmed, they were attacked by three pagan galleys under the admiralty of the proconsul Demetrios. Perion's men, who fought so hardily on land, were novices at sea. They were powerless against an adversary who, from a great distance, showered liquid fire upon their vessel.
Then Demetrios sent little boats and took some thirty prisoners from the blazing ship, and made slaves of all save Ahasuerus the Jew, whom he released on being informed of the lean man's religion. It was a customary boast of this Demetrios that he made war on Christians only.
And presently, as Perion had commanded, Ahasuerus came to Melicent.
The princess sat in a high chair, the back of which was capped with a big lion's head in brass. It gleamed above her head, but was less glorious than her bright hair.
Ahasuerus made dispassionate report. "Thus painfully I have delivered, as my task was, these fine messages concerning Faith and Love and Death and so on. Touching their rationality I may reserve my own opinion. I am merely Perion's echo. Do I echo madness? This madman was my loved and honoured master once, a lord without any peer in the fields where men contend in battle. To-day those sinews which preserved a throne are dedicated to the transportation of luggage. Grant it is laughable. I do not laugh."
"And I lack time to weep," said Melicent.
So, when the Jew had told his tale and gone, young Melicent arose and went into a chamber painted with the histories of Jason and Medea, where her brother Count Emmerick hid such jewels as had not many equals in Christendom.
She did not hesitate. She took no thought for her brother, she did not remember her loved sisters: Ettarre and Dorothy were their names, and they also suffered for their beauty, and for the desire it quickened in the hearts of men. Melicent knew only that Perion was in captivity and might not look for aid from any person living save herself.
She gathered in a blue napkin such emeralds as would ransom a pope. She cut short her marvellous hair and disguised herself in all things as a man, and under cover of the ensuing night slipped from the castle. At Manneville she found a Venetian ship bound homeward with a cargo of swords and armour.
She hired herself to the captain of this vessel as a servant, calling herself Jocelin Gaignars. She found no time—wherein to be afraid or to grieve for the estate she was relinquishing, so long as Perion lay in danger.
Thus the young Jocelin, though not without hardship and odd by-ends of adventure here irrelevant, came with time's course into a land of sunlight and much wickedness where Perion was.
There the boy found in what fashion Perion was living and won the dearly purchased misery of seeing him, from afar, in his deplorable condition, as Perion went through the outer yard of Nacumera laden with chains and carrying great logs toward the kitchen. This befell when Jocelin had come into the hill country, where the eyrie of Demetrios blocked a crag-hung valley as snugly as a stone chokes a gutter-pipe.
Young Jocelin had begged an audience of this heathen lord and had obtained it—though Jocelin did not know as much—with ominous facility.
How Perion Was Freed
Demetrios lay on a divan within the Court of Stars, through which you passed from the fortress into the Women's Garden and the luxurious prison where he kept his wives. This court was circular in form and was paved with red and yellow slabs, laid alternately, like a chess-board. In the centre was a fountain, which cast up a tall thin jet of water. A gallery extended around the place, supported by columns that had been painted scarlet and were gilded with fantastic designs. The walls were of the colour of claret and were adorned with golden cinquefoils regularly placed. From a distance they resembled stars, and so gave the enclosure its name.
Demetrios lay upon a long divan which was covered with crimson, and which encircled the court entirely, save for the apertures of the two entrances. Demetrios was of burly person, which he by ordinary, as to-day, adorned resplendently; of a stature little above the common size, and disproportionately broad as to his chest and shoulders. It was rumoured that he could bore an apple through with his forefinger and had once killed a refractory horse with a blow of his naked fist; nor looking on the man, did you presume to question the report. His eyes were large and insolent, coloured like onyxes; for the rest, he had a handsome surly face which was disfigured by pimples.
He did not speak at all while Jocelin explained that his errand was to ransom Perion. Then, "At what price?" Demetrios said, without any sign of interest; and Jocelin, with many encomiums, displayed his emeralds.
"Ay, they are well enough," Demetrios agreed. "But then I have a superfluity of jewels."
He raised himself a little among the cushions, and in this moving the figured golden stuff in which he was clothed heaved and glittered like the scales of a splendid monster. He leisurely unfastened the great chrysoberyl, big as a hen's egg, which adorned his fillet.
"Look you, this is of a far more beautiful green than any of your trinkets, I think it is as valuable also, because of its huge size. Moreover, it turns red by lamplight—red as blood. That is an admirable colour. And yet I do not value it. I think I do not value anything. So I will make you a gift of this big coloured pebble, if you desire it, because your ignorance amuses me. Most people know Demetrios is not a merchant. He does not buy and sell. That which he has he keeps, and that which he desires he takes."
The boy was all despair. He did not speak. He was very handsome as he stood in that still place where everything excepting him was red and gold.
"You do not value my poor chrysoberyl? You value your friend more? It is a page out of Theocritos—'when there were golden men of old, when friends gave love for love.' And yet I could have sworn—Come now, a wager," purred Demetrios. "Show your contempt of this bauble to be as great as mine by throwing this shiny pebble, say, into the gallery, for the next passer-by to pick up, and I will credit your sincerity. Do that and I will even name my price for Perion."
The boy obeyed him without hesitation. Turning, he saw the horrid change in the intent eyes of Demetrios, and quailed before it. But instantly that flare of passion flickered out.
Demetrios gently said:
"A bargain is a bargain. My wives are beautiful, but their caresses annoy me as much as formerly they pleased me. I have long thought it would perhaps amuse me if I possessed a Christian wife who had eyes like violets and hair like gold, and a plump white body. A man tires very soon of ebony and amber.... Procure me such a wife and I will willingly release this Perion and all his fellows who are yet alive."
"But, seignior,"—and the boy was shaken now,—"you demand of me an impossibility!"
"I am so hardy as to think not. And my reason is that a man throws from the elbow only, but a woman with her whole arm."
There fell a silence now.
"Why, look you, I deal fairly, though. Were such a woman here— Demetrios of Anatolia's guest—I verily believe I would not hinder her departure, as I might easily do. For there is not a person within many miles of this place who considers it wholesome to withstand me. Yet were this woman purchasable, I would purchase. And—if she refused—I would not hinder her departure; but very certainly I would put Perion to the Torment of the Waterdrops. It is so droll to see a man go mad before your eyes, I think that I would laugh and quite forget the woman."
She said, "O God, I cry to You for justice!"
"My good girl, in Nacumera the wishes of Demetrios are justice. But we waste time. You desire to purchase one of my belongings? So be it. I will hear your offer."
Just once her hands had gripped each other. Her arms fell now as if they had been drained of life. She spoke in a dull voice.
"Seignior, I offer Melicent who was a princess. I cry a price, seignior, for red lips and bright eyes and a fair woman's tender body without any blemish. I cry a price for youth and happiness and honour. These you may have for playthings, seignior, with everything which I possess, except my heart, for that is dead."
Demetrios asked, "Is this true speech?"
"It is as sure as Love and Death. I know that nothing is more sure than these, and I praise God for my sure knowledge."
He chuckled, saying, "Platitudes break no bones."
So on the next day the chains were filed from Perion de la Foret and all his fellows, save the nine unfortunates whom Demetrios had appointed to fight with lions a month before this, when he had entertained the Soldan of Bacharia. These men were bathed and perfumed and richly clad.
A galley of the proconsul's fleet conveyed them toward Christendom and set the twoscore slaves of yesterday ashore not far from Megaris. The captain of the galley on departure left with Perion a blue napkin, wherein were wrapped large emeralds and a bit of parchment.
Upon this parchment was written:
"Not these, but the body of Melicent, who was once a princess, purchased your bodies. Yet these will buy you ships and men and swords with which to storm my house where Melicent now is. Come if you will and fight with Demetrios of Anatolia for that brave girl who loved a porter as all loyal men should love their Maker and customarily do not. I think it would amuse us."
Then Perion stood by the languid sea which severed him from Melicent and cried:
"O God, that hast permitted this hard bargain, trade now with me! now barter with me, O Father of us all! That which a man has I will give."
Thus he waited in the clear sunlight, with no more wavering in his face than you may find in the next statue's face. Both hands strained toward the blue sky, as though he made a vow. If so, he did not break it.
And now no more of Perion.
* * * * *
At the same hour young Melicent, wrapped all about with a flame-coloured veil and crowned with marjoram, was led by a spruce boy toward a threshold, over which Demetrios lifted her, while many people sang in a strange tongue. And then she paid her ransom.
"Hymen, O Hymen!" they sang. "Do thou of many names and many temples, golden Aphrodite, be propitious to this bridal! Now let him first compute the glittering stars of midnight and the grasshoppers of a summer day who would count the joys this bridal shall bring about! Hymen, O Hymen, rejoice thou in this bridal!"
How Demetrios Was Amused
Now Melicent abode in the house of Demetrios, whom she had not seen since the morning after he had wedded her. A month had passed. As yet she could not understand the language of her fellow prisoners, but Halaon, a eunuch who had once served a cardinal in Tuscany, informed her the proconsul was in the West Provinces, where an invading force had landed under Ranulph de Meschines.
A month had passed. She woke one night from dreams of Perion—what else should women dream of?—and found the same Ahasuerus that had brought her news of Perion's captivity, so long ago, attendant at her bedside.
He seemed a prey to some half-scornful mirth. In speech, at least, the man was of entire discretion. "The Splendour of the World desires your presence, madame." Thus the Jew blandly spoke.
She cried, aghast at so much treachery, "You had planned this!"
"I plan always. Oh, certainly, I must weave always as the spider does.... Meanwhile time passes. I, like you, am now the servitor of Demetrios. I am his factor now at Calonak. I buy and sell. I estimate ounces. I earn my wages. Who forbids it?" Here the Jew shrugged. "And to conclude, the Splendour of the World desires your presence, madame."
He seemed to get much joy of this mouth-filling periphrasis as sneeringly he spoke of their common master.
* * * * *
Now Melicent, in a loose robe of green Coan stuff shot through and through with a radiancy like that of copper, followed the thin, smiling Jew Ahasuerus. She came thus with bare feet into the Court of Stars, where the proconsul lay on the divan as though he had not ever moved from there. To-night he was clothed in scarlet, and barbaric ornaments dangled from his pierced ears. These glittered now that his head moved a little as he silently dismissed Ahasuerus from the Court of Stars.
Real stars were overhead, so brilliant and (it seemed) so near they turned the fountain's jet into a spurt of melting silver. The moon was set, but there was a flaring lamp of iron, high as a man's shoulder, yonder where Demetrios lay.
"Stand close to it, my wife," said the proconsul, "in order that I may see my newest purchase very clearly."
She obeyed him; and she esteemed the sacrifice, however unendurable, which bought for Perion the chance to serve God and his love for her by valorous and commendable actions to be no cause for grief.
"I think with those old men who sat upon the walls of Troy," Demetrios said, and he laughed because his voice had shaken a little. "Meanwhile I have returned from crucifying a hundred of your fellow worshippers," Demetrios continued. His speech had an odd sweetness. "Ey, yes, I conquered at Yroga. It was a good fight. My horse's hoofs were red at its conclusion. My surviving opponents I consider to have been deplorable fools when they surrendered, for people die less painfully in battle. There was one fellow, a Franciscan monk, who hung six hours upon a palm tree, always turning his head from one side to the other. It was amusing."
She answered nothing.
"And I was wondering always how I would feel were you nailed in his place. It was curious I should have thought of you.... But your white flesh is like the petals of a flower. I suppose it is as readily destructible. I think you would not long endure."
"I pray God hourly that I may not!" said tense Melicent.
He was pleased to have wrung one cry of anguish from this lovely effigy. He motioned her to him and laid one hand upon her naked breast. He gave a gesture of distaste.
"No, you are not afraid. However, you are very beautiful. I thought that you would please me more when your gold hair had grown a trifle longer. There is nothing in the world so beautiful as golden hair. Its beauty weathers even the commendation of poets."
No power of motion seemed to be in this white girl, but certainly you could detect no fear. Her clinging robe shone like an opal in the lamplight, her body, only partly veiled, was enticing, and her visage was very lovely. Her wide-open eyes implored you, but only as those of a trapped animal beseech the mercy for which it does not really hope. Thus Melicent waited in the clear lamplight, with no more wavering in her face than you may find in the next statue's face.
In the man's heart woke now some comprehension of the nature of her love for Perion, of that high and alien madness which dared to make of Demetrios of Anatolia's will an unavoidable discomfort, and no more. The prospect was alluring. The proconsul began to chuckle as water pours from a jar, and the gold in his ears twinkled.
"Decidedly I shall get much mirth of you. Go back to your own rooms. I had thought the world afforded no adversary and no game worthy of Demetrios. I have found both. Therefore, go back to your own rooms," he gently said.
How Time Sped in Heathenry
On the next day Melicent was removed to more magnificent apartments, and she was lodged in a lofty and spacious pavilion, which had three porticoes builded of marble and carved teakwood and Andalusian copper. Her rooms were spread with gold-worked carpets and hung with tapestries and brocaded silks figured with all manner of beasts and birds in their proper colours. Such was the girl's home now, where only happiness was denied to her. Many slaves attended Melicent, and she lacked for nothing in luxury and riches and things of price; and thereafter she abode at Nacumera, to all appearances, as the favourite among the proconsul's wives.
It must be recorded of Demetrios that henceforth he scrupulously demurred even to touch her. "I have purchased your body," he proudly said, "and I have taken seizin. I find I do not care for anything which can be purchased."
It may be that the man was never sane; it is indisputable that the mainspring of his least action was an inordinate pride. Here he had stumbled upon something which made of Demetrios of Anatolia a temporary discomfort, and which bedwarfed the utmost reach of his ill-doing into equality with the molestations of a house-fly; and perception of this fact worked in Demetrios like a poisonous ferment. To beg or once again to pillage he thought equally unworthy of himself. "Let us have patience!" It was not easily said so long as this fair Frankish woman dared to entertain a passion which Demetrios could not comprehend, and of which Demetrios was, and knew himself to be, incapable.
A connoisseur of passions, he resented such belittlement tempestuously; and he heaped every luxury upon Melicent, because, as he assured himself, the heart of every woman is alike.
He had his theories, his cunning, and, chief of all, an appreciation of her beauty, as his abettors. She had her memories and her clean heart. They duelled thus accoutred.
Meanwhile his other wives peered from screened alcoves at these two and duly hated Melicent. Upon no less than three occasions did Callistion— the first wife of the proconsul and the mother of his elder son— attempt the life of Melicent; and thrice Demetrios spared the woman at Melicent's entreaty. For Melicent (since she loved Perion) could understand that it was love of Demetrios, rather than hate of her, which drove the Dacian virago to extremities.
Then one day about noon Demetrios came unheralded into Melicent's resplendent prison. Through an aisle of painted pillars he came to her, striding with unwonted quickness, glittering as he moved. His robe this day was scarlet, the colour he chiefly affected. Gold glowed upon his forehead, gold dangled from his ears, and about his throat was a broad collar of gold and rubies. At his side was a cross-handled sword, in a scabbard of blue leather, curiously ornamented.
"Give thanks, my wife," Demetrios said, "that you are beautiful. For beauty was ever the spur of valour." Then quickly, joyously, he told her of how a fleet equipped by the King of Cyprus had been despatched against the province of Demetrios, and of how among the invaders were Perion of the Forest and his Free Companions. "Ey, yes, my porter has returned. I ride instantly for the coast to greet him with appropriate welcome. I pray heaven it is no sluggard or weakling that is come out against me."
Proudly, Melicent replied:
"There comes against you a champion of noted deeds, a courteous and hardy gentleman, pre-eminent at swordplay. There was never any man more ready than Perion to break a lance or shatter a shield, or more eager to succour the helpless and put to shame all cowards and traitors."
Demetrios dryly said:
"I do not question that the virtues of my porter are innumerable. Therefore we will not attempt to catalogue them. Now Ahasuerus reports that even before you came to tempt me with your paltry emeralds you once held the life of Perion in your hands?" Demetrios unfastened his sword. He grasped the hand of Melicent, and laid it upon the scabbard. "And what do you hold now, my wife? You hold the death of Perion. I take the antithesis to be neat."
She answered nothing. Her seeming indifference angered him. Demetrios wrenched the sword from its scabbard, with a hard violence that made Melicent recoil. He showed the blade all covered with graved symbols of which she could make nothing.
"This is Flamberge," said the proconsul; "the weapon which was the pride and bane of my father, famed Miramon Lluagor, because it was the sword which Galas made, in the old time's heyday, for unconquerable Charlemagne. Clerks declare it is a magic weapon and that the man who wields it is always unconquerable. I do not know. I think it is as difficult to believe in sorcery as it is to be entirely sure that all we know is not the sorcery of a drunken wizard. I very potently believe, however, that with this sword I shall kill Perion."
Melicent had plenty of patience, but astonishingly little, it seemed, for this sort of speech. "I think that you talk foolishly, seignior. And, other matters apart, it is manifest that you yourself concede Perion to be the better swordsman, since you require to be abetted by sorcery before you dare to face him."
"So, so!" Demetrios said, in a sort of grinding whisper, "you think that I am not the equal of this long-legged fellow! You would think otherwise if I had him here. You will think otherwise when I have killed him with my naked hands. Oh, very soon you will think otherwise."
He snarled, rage choking him, flung the sword at her feet and quitted her without any leave-taking. He had ridden three miles from Nacumera before he began to laugh. He perceived that Melicent at least respected sorcery, and had tricked him out of Flamberge by playing upon his tetchy vanity. Her adroitness pleased him.
Demetrios did not laugh when he found the Christian fleet had been ingloriously repulsed at sea by the Emir of Arsuf, and had never effected a landing. Demetrios picked a quarrel with the victorious admiral and killed the marplot in a public duel, but that was inadequate comfort.
"However," the proconsul reassured himself, "if my wife reports at all truthfully as to this Perion's nature it is certain that this Perion will come again." Then Demetrios went into the sacred grove upon the hillsides south of Quesiton and made an offering of myrtle-branches, rose-leaves and incense to Aphrodite of Colias.
How Demetrios Wooed
Ahasuerus came and went at will. Nothing was known concerning this soft-treading furtive man except by the proconsul, who had no confidants. By his decree Ahasuerus was an honoured guest at Nacumera. And always the Jew's eyes when Melicent was near him were as expressionless as the eyes of a snake, which do not ever change.
Once she told Demetrios that she feared Ahasuerus.
"But I do not fear him, Melicent, though I have larger reason. For I alone of all men living know the truth concerning this same Jew. Therefore, it amuses me to think that he, who served my wizard father in a very different fashion, is to-day my factor and ciphers over my accounts."
Demetrios laughed, and had the Jew summoned.
This was in the Women's Garden, where the proconsul sat with Melicent in a little domed pavilion of stone-work which was gilded with red gold and crowned with a cupola of alabaster. Its pavement was of transparent glass, under which were clear running waters wherein swam red and yellow fish.
"It appears that you are a formidable person, Ahasuerus. My wife here fears you."
"Splendour of the Age," returned Ahasuerus, quietly, "it is notorious that women have long hair and short wits. There is no need to fear a Jew. The Jew, I take it, was created in order that children might evince their playfulness by stoning him, the honest show their common-sense by robbing him, and the religious display their piety by burning him. Who forbids it?"
"Ey, but my wife is a Christian and in consequence worships a Jew." Demetrios reflected. His dark eyes twinkled. "What is your opinion concerning this other Jew, Ahasuerus?"
"I know that He was the Messiah, Lord."
"And yet you do not worship Him."
The Jew said:
"It was not altogether worship He desired. He asked that men should love Him. He does not ask love of me."
"I find that an obscure saying," Demetrios considered.
"It is a true saying, King of Kings. In time it will be made plain. That time is not yet come. I used to pray it would come soon. Now I do not pray any longer. I only wait."
Demetrios tugged at his chin, his eyes narrowed, meditating. He laughed.
"It is no affair of mine. What am I that I am called upon to have prejudices concerning the universe? It is highly probable there are gods of some sort or another, but I do not so far flatter myself as to consider that any possible god would be at all interested in my opinion of him. In any event, I am Demetrios. Let the worst come, and in whatever baleful underworld I find myself imprisoned I shall maintain myself there in a manner not unworthy of Demetrios." The proconsul shrugged at this point. "I do not find you amusing, Ahasuerus. You may go."
"I hear, and I obey," the Jew replied. He went away patiently.
Then Demetrios turned toward Melicent, rejoicing that his chattel had golden hair and was comely beyond comparison with all other women he had ever seen.
"I love you, Melicent, and you do not love me. Do not be offended because my speech is harsh, for even though I know my candour is distasteful I must speak the truth. You have been obdurate too long, denying Kypris what is due to her. I think that your brain is giddy because of too much exulting in the magnificence of your body and in the number of men who have desired it to their own hurt. I concede your beauty, yet what will it matter a hundred years from now?
"I admit that my refrain is old. But it will presently take on a more poignant meaning, because a hundred years from now you—even you, dear Melicent!—and all the loveliness which now causes me to estimate life as a light matter in comparison with your love, will be only a bone or two. Your lustrous eyes, which are now more beautiful than it is possible to express, will be unsavoury holes and a worm will crawl through them; and what will it matter a hundred years from now?
"A hundred years from now should anyone break open our gilded tomb, he will find Melicent to be no more admirable than Demetrios. One skull is like another, and is as lightly split with a mattock. You will be as ugly as I, and nobody will be thinking of your eyes and hair. Hail, rain and dew will drench us both impartially when I lie at your side, as I intend to do, for a hundred years and yet another hundred years. You need not frown, for what will it matter a hundred years from now?
"Melicent, I offer love and a life that derides the folly of all other manners of living; and even if you deny me, what will it matter a hundred years from now?"
His face was contorted, his speech had fervent bitterness, for even while he wooed this woman the man internally was raging over his own infatuation.
And Melicent answered:
"There can be no question of love between us, seignior. You purchased my body. My body is at your disposal under God's will."
Demetrios sneered, his ardours cooled. He said, "I have already told you, my girl, I do not care for that which can be purchased."
In such fashion Melicent abode among these odious persons as a lily which is rooted in mire. She was a prisoner always, and when Demetrios came to Nacumera—which fell about irregularly, for now arose much fighting between the Christians and the pagans—a gem which he uncased, admired, curtly exulted in, and then, jeering at those hot wishes in his heart, locked up untouched when he went back to warfare.
To her the man was uniformly kind, if with a sort of sneer she could not understand; and he pillaged an infinity of Genoese and Venetian ships—which were notoriously the richest laden—of jewels, veils, silks, furs, embroideries and figured stuffs, wherewith to enhance the comeliness of Melicent. It seemed an all-engulfing madness with this despot daily to aggravate his fierce desire of her, to nurture his obsession, so that he might glory in the consciousness of treading down no puny adversary.
Pride spurred him on as witches ride their dupes to a foreknown destruction. "Let us have patience," he would say.
Meanwhile his other wives peered from screened alcoves at these two and duly hated Melicent. "Let us have patience!" they said, also, but with a meaning that was more sinister.
Of how Dame Melicent's fond lovers go As comrades, working each his fellow's woe: Each hath unhorsed the other of the twain, And knoweth that nowhither 'twixt Ukraine And Ormus roameth any lion's son More eager in the hunt than Perion, Nor any viper's sire more venomous Through jealous hurt than is Demetrios.
How Time Sped with Perion
It is a tale which they narrate in Poictesme, telling of what befell Perion de la Foret after he had been ransomed out of heathenry. They tell how he took service with the King of Cyprus. And the tale tells how the King of Cyprus was defeated at sea by the Emir of Arsuf; and how Perion came unhurt from that battle, and by land relieved the garrison at Japhe, and was ennobled therefor; and was afterward called the Comte de la Foret.
Then the King of Cyprus made peace with heathendom, and Perion left him. Now Perion's skill in warfare was leased to whatsoever lord would dare contend against Demetrios and the proconsul's magic sword Flamberge: and Perion of the Forest did not inordinately concern himself as to the merits of any quarrel because of which battalions died, so long as he fought toward Melicent. Demetrios was pleased, and thrilled with the heroic joy of an athlete who finds that he unwittingly has grappled with his equal.
So the duel between these two dragged on with varying fortunes, and the years passed, and neither duellist had conquered as yet. Then King Theodoret, third of that name to rule, and once (as you have heard) a wooer of Dame Melicent, declared a crusade; and Perion went to him at Lacre Kai. It was in making this journey, they say, that Perion passed through Pseudopolis, and had speech there with Queen Helen, the delight of gods and men: and Perion conceded this Queen was well-enough to look at.
"She reminds me, indeed, of that Dame Melicent whom I serve in this world, and trust to serve in Paradise," said Perion. "But Dame Melicent has a mole on her left cheek."
"That is a pity," said an attendant lord. "A mole disfigures a pretty woman."
"I was speaking, messire, of Dame Melicent."
"Even so," the lord replied, "a mole is a blemish."
"I cannot permit these observations," said Perion. So they fought, and Perion killed his opponent, and left Pseudopolis that afternoon.
Such was Perion's way.
He came unhurt to King Theodoret, who at once recognised in the famous Comte de la Foret the former Vicomte de Puysange, but gave no sign of such recognition.
"Heaven chooses its own instruments," the pious King reflected: "and this swaggering Comte de la Foret, who affects so many names has also the name of being a warrior without any peer in Christendom. Let us first conquer this infamous proconsul, this adversary of our Redeemer, and then we shall see. It may be that heaven will then permit me to detect this Comte de la Foret in some particularly abominable heresy. For this long-legged ruffian looks like a schismatic, and would singularly grace a rack."
So King Theodoret kissed Perion upon both cheeks, and created him generalissimo of King Theodoret's forces. It was upon St. George's day that Perion set sail with thirty-four ships of great dimensions and admirable swiftness.
"Do you bring me back Demetrios in chains," said the King, fondling Perion at parting, "and all that I have is yours."
"I mean to bring back my stolen wife, Dame Melicent," was Perion's reply: "and if I can manage it I shall also bring you this Demetrios, in return for lending me these ships and soldiers."
"Do you think," the King asked, peevishly, "that monarchs nowadays fit out armaments to replevin a woman who is no longer young, and who was always stupid?"
"I cannot permit these observations—" said Perion.
Theodoret hastily explained that his was merely a general observation, without any personal bearing.
How Demetrios Was Taken
Thus it was that war awoke and raged about the province of Demetrios as tirelessly as waves lapped at its shores.
Then, after many ups and downs of carnage,[1: Nicolas de Caen gives here a minute account of the military and naval evolutions, with a fullness that verges upon prolixity. It appears expedient to omit all this.] Perion surprised the galley of Demetrios while the proconsul slept at anchor in his own harbour of Quesiton. Demetrios fought nakedly against accoutred soldiers and had killed two of them with his hands before he could be quieted by an admiring Perion.
Demetrios by Perion's order was furnished with a sword of ordinary attributes, and Perion ridded himself of all defensive armour. The two met like an encounter of tempests, and in the outcome Demetrios was wounded so that he lay insensible.
Demetrios was taken as a prisoner toward the domains of King Theodoret.
"Only you are my private capture," said Perion; "conquered by my own hand and in fair fight. Now I am unwilling to insult the most valiant warrior whom I have known by valuing him too cheaply, and I accordingly fix your ransom as the person of Dame Melicent."
Demetrios bit his nails.
"Needs must," he said at last. "It is unnecessary to inform you that when my property is taken from me I shall endeavour to regain it. I shall, before the year is out, lay waste whatever kingdom it is that harbours you. Meanwhile I warn you it is necessary to be speedy in this ransoming. My other wives abhor the Frankish woman who has supplanted them in my esteem. My son Orestes, who succeeds me, will be guided by his mother. Callistion has thrice endeavoured to kill Melicent. If any harm befalls me, Callistion to all intent will reign in Nacumera, and she will not be satisfied with mere assassination. I cannot guess what torment Callistion will devise, but it will be no child's play—"
"Hah, infamy!" cried Perion. He had learned long ago how cunning the heathen were in such cruelties, and so he shuddered.
Demetrios was silent. He, too, was frightened, because this despot knew—and none knew better—that in his lordly house far oversea Callistion would find equipment for a hundred curious tortures.
"It has been difficult for me to tell you this," Demetrios then said, "because it savours of an appeal to spare me. I think you will have gleaned, however, from our former encounters, that I am not unreasonably afraid of death. Also I think that you love Melicent. For the rest, there is no person in Nacumera so untutored as to cross my least desire until my death is triply proven. Accordingly, I who am Demetrios am willing to entreat an oath that you will not permit Theodoret to kill me."
"I swear by God and all the laws of Rome—" cried Perion.
"Ey, but I am not very popular in Rome," Demetrios interrupted. "I would prefer that you swore by your love for Melicent. I would prefer an oath which both of us may understand, and I know of none other."
So Perion swore as Demetrios requested, and set about the conveyance of Demetrios into King Theodoret's realm.
How They Praised Melicent
The conqueror and the conquered sat together upon the prow of Perion's ship. It was a warm, clear night, so brilliant that the stars were invisible. Perion sighed. Demetrios inquired the reason. Perion said:
"It is the memory of a fair and noble lady, Messire Demetrios, that causes me to heave a sigh from my inmost heart. I cannot forget that loveliness which had no parallel. Pardieu, her eyes were amethysts, her lips were red as the berries of a holly tree. Her hair blazed in the light, bright as the sunflower glows; her skin was whiter than milk; the down of a fledgling bird was not more grateful to the touch than were her hands. There was never any person more delightful to gaze upon, and whosoever beheld her forthwith desired to render love and service to Dame Melicent."
Demetrios gave his customary lazy shrug. Demetrios said:
"She is still a brightly-coloured creature, moves gracefully, has a sweet, drowsy voice, and is as soft to the touch as rabbit's fur. Therefore, it is imperative that one of us must cut the other's throat. The deduction is perfectly logical. Yet I do not know that my love for her is any greater than my hatred. I rage against her patient tolerance of me, and I am often tempted to disfigure, mutilate, even to destroy this colourful, stupid woman, who makes me wofully ridiculous in my own eyes. I shall be happier when death has taken the woman who ventures to deal in this fashion with Demetrios."
"When I first saw Dame Melicent the sea was languid, as if outworn by vain endeavours to rival the purple of her eyes. Sea-birds were adrift in the air, very close to her and their movements were less graceful than hers. She was attired in a robe of white silk, and about her wrists were heavy bands of silver. A tiny wind played truant in order to caress her unplaited hair, because the wind was more hardy than I, and dared to love her. I did not think of love, I thought only of the noble deeds I might have done and had not done. I thought of my unworthiness, and it seemed to me that my soul writhed like an eel in sunlight, a naked, despicable thing, that was unworthy to render any love and service to Dame Melicent."
"When I first saw the girl she knew herself entrapped, her body mine, her life dependent on my whim. She waved aside such petty inconveniences, bade them await an hour when she had leisure to consider them, because nothing else was of any importance so long as my porter went in chains. I was an obstacle to her plans and nothing more; a pebble in her shoe would have perturbed her about as much as I did. Here at last, I thought, is genuine common-sense—a clear-headed decision as to your actual desire, apart from man-taught ethics, and fearless purchase of your desire at any cost. There is something not unakin to me, I reflected, in the girl who ventures to deal in this fashion with Demetrios."
"Since she permits me to serve her, I may not serve unworthily. To-morrow I shall set new armies afield. To-morrow it will delight me to see their tents rise in your meadows, Messire Demetrios, and to see our followers meet in clashing combat, by hundreds and thousands, so mightily that men will sing of it when we are gone. To-morrow one of us must kill the other. To-night we drink our wine in amity. I have not time to hate you, I have not time to like or dislike any living person, I must devote all faculties that heaven gave me to the love and service of Dame Melicent."
"To-night we babble to the stars and dream vain dreams as other fools have done before us. To-morrow rests—perhaps—with heaven; but, depend upon it, Messire de la Foret, whatever we may do to-morrow will be foolishly performed, because we are both besotted by bright eyes and lips and hair. I trust to find our antics laughable. Yet there is that in me which is murderous when I reflect that you and she do not dislike me. It is the distasteful truth that neither of you considers me to be worth the trouble. I find such conduct irritating, because no other persons have ever ventured to deal in this fashion with Demetrios."
"Demetrios, already your antics are laughable, for you pass blindly by the revelation of heaven's splendour in heaven's masterwork; you ignore the miracle; and so do you find only the stings of the flesh where I find joy in rendering love and service to Dame Melicent."
"Perion, it is you that play the fool, in not recognising that heaven is inaccessible and doubtful. But clearer eyes perceive the not at all doubtful dullness of wit, and the gratifying accessibility of every woman when properly handled,—yes, even of her who dares to deal in this fashion with Demetrios."
Thus they would sit together, nightly, upon the prow of Perion's ship and speak against each other in the manner of a Tenson, as these two rhapsodised of Melicent until the stars grew lustreless before the sun.
How Perion Braved Theodoret
The city of Megaris (then Theodoret's capital) was ablaze with bonfires on the night that the Comte de la Foret entered it at the head of his forces. Demetrios, meanly clothed, his hands tied behind him, trudged sullenly beside his conqueror's horse. Yet of the two the gloomier face showed below the count's coronet, for Perion did not relish the impendent interview with King Theodoret. They came thus amid much shouting to the Hotel d'Ebelin, their assigned quarters, and slept there.
Next morning, about the hour of prime, two men-at-arms accompanied a fettered Demetrios into the presence of King Theodoret. Perion of the Forest preceded them. He pardonably swaggered, in spite of his underlying uneasiness, for this last feat, as he could not ignore, was a performance which Christendom united to applaud.
They came thus into a spacious chamber, very inadequately lighted. The walls were unhewn stone. There was but one window, of uncoloured glass; and it was guarded by iron bars. The floor was bare of rushes. On one side was a bed with tattered hangings of green, which were adorned with rampant lions worked in silver thread much tarnished; to the right hand stood a prie-dieu. Between these isolated articles of furniture, and behind an unpainted table sat, in a high-backed chair, a wizen and shabbily-clad old man. This was Theodoret, most pious and penurious of monarchs. In attendance upon him were Fra Battista, prior of the Grey Monks, and Melicent's near kinsman, once the Bishop, now the Cardinal, de Montors, who, as was widely known, was the actual monarch of this realm. The latter was smartly habited as a cavalier and showed in nothing like a churchman.
The infirm King arose and came to meet the champion who had performed what many generals of Christendom had vainly striven to achieve. He embraced the conqueror of Demetrios as one does an equal.
"Hail, my fair friend! you who have lopped the right arm of heathenry! To-day, I know, the saints hold festival in heaven. I cannot recompense you, since God alone is omnipotent. Yet ask now what you will, short of my crown, and it is yours." The old man kissed the chief of all his treasures, a bit of the True Cross, which hung upon his breast supported by a chain of gold.
"The King has spoken," Perion returned. "I ask the life of Demetrios."
Theodoret recoiled, like a small flame which is fluttered by its kindler's breath. He cackled thinly, saying:
"A jest or so is privileged in this high hour. Yet we ought not to make a jest of matters which concern the Church. Am I not right, Ayrart? Oh, no, this merciless Demetrios is assuredly that very Antichrist whose coming was foretold. I must relinquish him to Mother Church, in order that he may be equitably tried, and be baptised—since even he may have a soul—and afterward be burned in the market-place."
"The King has spoken," Perion replied. "I too have spoken."
There was a pause of horror upon the part of King Theodoret. He was at first in a mere whirl. Theodoret said:
"You ask, in earnest, for the life of this Demetrios, this arch-foe of our Redeemer, this spawn of Satan, who has sacked more of my towns than I have fingers on this wasted hand! Now, now that God has singularly favoured me—!" Theodoret snarled and gibbered like a frenzied ape, and had no longer the ability to articulate.
"Beau sire, I fought the man because he infamously held Dame Melicent, whom I serve in this world without any reservation, and trust to serve in Paradise. His person, and this alone, will ransom Melicent."
"You plan to loose this fiend!" the old King cried. "To stir up all this butchery again!"
"Sire, pray recall how long I have loved Melicent. Reflect that if you slay Demetrios, Dame Melicent will be left destitute in heathenry. Remember that she will be murdered through the hatred of this man's other wives whom her inestimable beauty has supplanted." Thus Perion entreated.
All this while the cardinal and the proconsul had been appraising each other. It was as though they two had been the only persons in the dimly-lit apartment. They had not met before. "Here is my match," thought each of these two; "here, if the world affords it, is my peer in cunning and bravery."
And each lusted for a contest, and with something of mutual comprehension.
In consequence they stinted pity for Theodoret, who unfeignedly believed that whether he kept or broke his recent oath damnation was inevitable. "You have been ill-advised—" he stammered. "I do not dare release Demetrios—My soul would answer that enormity—But it was sworn upon the Cross—Oh, ruin either way! Come now, my gallant captain," the King barked. "I have gold, lands, and jewels—"
"Beau sire, I have loved this my dearest lady since the time when both of us were little more than children, and each day of the year my love for her has been doubled. What would it avail me to live in however lofty estate when I cannot daily see the treasure of my life?"
Now the Cardinal de Montors interrupted, and his voice was to the ear as silk is to the fingers.
"Beau sire," said Ayrart de Montors, "I speak in all appropriate respect. But you have sworn an oath which no man living may presume to violate."
"Oh, true, Ayrart!" the fluttered King assented. "This blusterer holds me as in a vise." He turned to Perion again, fierce, tense and fragile, like an angered cat. "Choose now! I will make you the wealthiest person in my realm—My son, I warn you that since Adam's time women have been the devil's peculiar bait. See now, I am not angry. Heh, I remember, too, how beautiful she was. I was once tempted much as you are tempted. So I pardon you. I will give you my daughter Ermengarde in marriage, I will make you my heir, I will give you half my kingdom—" His voice rose, quavering; and it died now, for he foreread the damnation of Theodoret's soul while he fawned before this impassive Perion.
"Since Love has taken up his abode within my heart," said Perion, "there has not ever been a vacancy therein for any other thought. How may I help it if Love recompenses my hospitality by afflicting me with a desire which can neither subdue the world nor be subdued by it?"
Theodoret continued like the rustle of dead leaves:
"—Else I must keep my oath. In that event you may depart with this unbeliever. I will accord you twenty-four hours wherein to accomplish this. But, oh, if I lay hands upon either of you within the twenty-fifth hour I will not kill my prisoner at once. For first I must devise unheard-of torments—"
The King's face was not agreeable to look upon.
Yet Perion encountered it with an untroubled gaze until Battista spoke, saying:
"I promise worse. The Book will be cast down, the bells be tolled, and all the candles snuffed—ah, very soon!" Battista licked his lips, gingerly, just as a cat does.
Then Perion was moved, since excommunication is more terrible than death to any of the Church's loyal children, and he was now more frightened than the King. And so Perion thought of Melicent a while before he spoke.
"I choose. I choose hell fire in place of riches and honour, and I demand the freedom of Demetrios."
"Go!" the King said. "Go hence, blasphemer. Hah, you will weep for this in hell. I pray that I may hear you then, and laugh as I do now—"
He went away, and was followed by Battista, who whispered of a makeshift. The cardinal remained and saw to it that the chains were taken from Demetrios.
"In consequence of Messire de la Foret's—as I must term it—most unchristian decision," said the cardinal, "it is not impossible, Messire the Proconsul, that I may head the next assault upon your territory—"
Demetrios laughed. He said:
"I dare to promise your Eminence that reception you would most enjoy."
"I had hoped for as much," the cardinal returned; and he too laughed. To do him justice, he did not know of Battista's makeshift.
The cardinal remained when they had gone. Seated in a king's chair, Ayrart de Montors meditated rather wistfully upon that old time when he, also, had loved Melicent whole-heartedly. It seemed a great while ago, made him aware of his maturity.
He had put love out of his life, in common with all other weaknesses which might conceivably hinder the advancement of Ayrart de Montors. In consequence, he had climbed far. He was not dissatisfied. It was a man's business to make his way in the world, and he had done this.
"My cousin is a brave girl, though," he said aloud, "I must certainly do what I can to effect her rescue as soon as it is convenient to send another expedition against Demetrios."
Then the cardinal set about concoction of a moving sonnet in praise of Monna Vittoria de' Pazzi. Desperation loaned him extraordinary eloquence (as he complacently reflected) in addressing this obdurate woman, who had held out against his love-making for six weeks now.