THE RISE OF ISKANDER
By Benjamin Disraeli
The sun had set behind the mountains, and the rich plain of Athens was suffused with the violet glow of a Grecian eye. A light breeze rose; the olive-groves awoke from their noonday trance, and rustled with returning animation, and the pennons of the Turkish squadron, that lay at anchor in the harbour of Piraeus, twinkled in the lively air. From one gate of the city the women came forth in procession to the fountain; from another, a band of sumptuous horsemen sallied out, and threw their wanton javelins in the invigorating sky, as they galloped over the plain. The voice of birds, the buzz of beauteous insects, the breath of fragrant flowers, the quivering note of the nightingale, the pattering call of the grasshopper, and the perfume of the violet, shrinking from the embrace of the twilight breeze, filled the purple air with music and with odour.
A solitary being stood upon the towering crag of the Acropolis, amid the ruins of the Temple of Minerva, and gazed upon the inspiring scene. Around him rose the matchless memorials of antique art; immortal columns whose symmetry baffles modern proportion, serene Caryatides, bearing with greater grace a graceful burthen, carvings of delicate precision, and friezes breathing with heroic life. Apparently the stranger, though habited as a Moslemin, was not insensible to the genius of the locality, nor indeed would his form and countenance have misbecome a contemporary of Pericles and Phidias. In the prime of life and far above the common stature, but with a frame the muscular power of which was even exceeded by its almost ideal symmetry, white forehead, his straight profile, his oval countenance, and his curling lip, exhibited the same visage that had inspired the sculptor of the surrounding demigods.
The dress of the stranger, although gorgeous, was, however, certainly not classic. A crimson shawl was wound round his head and glittered with a trembling aigrette of diamonds. His vest which set tight to his form, was of green velvet, richly embroidered with gold and pearls. Over this he wore a very light jacket of crimson velvet, equally embroidered, and lined with sable. He wore also the full white camese common among the Albanians; and while his feet were protected by sandals, the lower part of his legs was guarded by greaves of embroidered green velvet. From a broad belt of scarlet leather peeped forth the jewelled hilts of a variety of daggers, and by his side was an enormous scimitar, in a scabbard of chased silver.
The stranger gazed upon the wide prospect before him with an air of pensive abstraction. "Beautiful Greece," he exclaimed, "thou art still my country. A mournful lot is mine, a strange and mournful lot, yet not uncheered by hope. I am at least a warrior; and this arm, though trained to war against thee, will not well forget, in the quick hour of battle, the blood that flows within it. Themistocles saved Greece and died a Satrap: I am bred one, let me reverse our lots, and die at least a patriot."
At this moment the Evening Hymn to the Virgin arose from a neighbouring convent. The stranger started as the sacred melody floated towards him, and taking a small golden cross from his heart, he kissed it with devotion, and then descending the steep of the citadel, entered the city.
He proceeded alone the narrow winding streets of Athens until he at length arrived in front of a marble palace, in the construction of which the architect had certainly not consulted the surrounding models which Time bad spared to him, but which, however, it might have offended a classic taste, presented altogether a magnificent appearance. Half-a-dozen guards, whose shields and helmets somewhat oddly contrasted with the two pieces of cannon, one of which was ostentatiously placed on each side of the portal, and which had been presented to the Prince of Athens by the Republic of Venice, lounged before the entrance, and paid their military homage to the stranger as he passed them. He passed them and entered a large quadrangular garden, surrounded by arcades, supported by a considerable number of thin, low pillars, of barbarous workmanship, and various-coloured marbles. In the midst of the garden rose a fountain, whence the bubbling waters flowed in artificial channels through vistas of orange and lemon trees. By the side of the fountain on a luxurious couch, his eyes fixed upon a richly-illuminated volume, reposed Nicaeus, the youthful Prince of Athens.
"Ah! is it you?" said the Prince, looking up with a smile, as the stranger advanced. "You have arrived just in time to remind me that we must do something more than read the Persae, we must act it."
"My dear Nicaeus," replied the stranger, "I have arrived only to bid you farewell."
"Farewell!" exclaimed the Prince in a tone of surprise and sorrow; and he rose from the couch. "Why! what is this?"
"It is too true;" said the stranger, and he led the way down one of the walks. "Events have occurred which entirely baffle all our plans and prospects, and place me in a position as difficult as it is harrowing. Hunniades has suddenly crossed the Danube in great force, and carried everything before him. I am ordered to proceed to Albania instantly, and to repair to the camp at the head of the Epirots."
"Indeed!" said Nicaeus, with a thoughtful air. "My letters did not prepare me for this. 'Tis sudden! Is Amurath himself in the field?"
"No; Karam Bey commands. I have accounted for my delay to the Sultan by pretended difficulties in our treaty, and have held out the prospect of a larger tribute."
"When we are plotting that that tribute should be paid no longer!" added Nicaeus, with a smile.
"Alas! my dear friend," replied the Turkish commander, "my situation has now become critical. Hitherto my services for the Moslemin have been confined to acting against nations of their own faith. I am now suddenly summoned to combat against my secret creed, and the best allies of what I must yet call my secret country. The movement, it appears to me, must be made now or never, and I cannot conceal from myself, that it never could have been prosecuted under less auspicious circumstances."
"What, you desponding!" exclaimed Nicaeus; "then I must despair. Your sanguine temper has alone supported me throughout all our dangerous hopes."
"And AEschylus?" said the stranger, smiling.
"And AEschylus, certainly," replied Nicaeus; "but I have lived to find even AEschylus insipid. I pant for action."
"It may be nearer than we can foresee," replied the stranger. "There is a God who fashions all things. He will not desert a righteous cause. He knoweth that my thoughts are as pure as my situation is difficult. I have some dim ideas still brooding in my mind, but we will not discuss them now. I must away, dear Prince. The breeze serves fairly. Have you ever seen Hunniades?"
"I was educated at the Court of Transylvania," replied Nicaeus, looking down with a somewhat embarrassed air. "He is a famous knight, Christendom's chief bulwark."
The Turkish commander sighed. "When we meet again," he said, "may we meet with brighter hopes and more buoyant spirits. At present, I must, indeed, say farewell."
The Prince turned with a dejected countenance, and pressed his companion to his heart. "'Tis a sad end," said he, "to all our happy hours and lofty plans."
"You are as yet too young to quarrel with Fortune," replied the stranger, "and for myself, I have not yet settled my accounts with her. However, for the present farewell, dear Nicaeus!"
"Farewell," replied the Prince of Athens, "farewell, dear Iskander!"
Iskander was the youngest son of the Prince of Epirus, who, with the other Grecian princes, had, at the commencement of the reign of Amurath the Second, in vain resisted the progress of the Turkish arms in Europe. The Prince of Epirus had obtained peace by yielding his four sons as hostages to the Turkish sovereign, who engaged that they should be educated in all the accomplishments of their rank, and with a due deference to their faith. On the death of the Prince of Epirus, however, Amurath could not resist the opportunity that then offered itself of adding to his empire the rich principality he had long coveted. A Turkish force instantly marched into Epirus, and seized upon Croia, the capital city, and the children of its late ruler were doomed to death. The beauty, talents, and valour of the youngest son, saved him, however, from the fate of his poisoned brothers. Iskander was educated at Adrianople, in the Moslemin faith, and as he, at a very early age, exceeded in feats of arms all the Moslemin warriors, he became a prime favourite of the Sultan, and speedily rose in his service to the highest rank.
At this period the irresistible progress of the Turkish arms was the subject of alarm throughout all Christendom.
Constantinople, then the capital of the Greek Empire, had already been more than once besieged by the predecessors of Amurath, and had only been preserved by fortunate accidents and humiliating terms. The despots of Bosnia, Servia, and Bulgaria, and the Grecian princes of Etolia, Macedon, Epirus, Athens, Phocis, Boeotia, and indeed of all the regions to the straits of Corinth, were tributaries to Amurath, and the rest of Europe was only preserved from his grasp by the valour of the Hungarians and the Poles, whom a fortunate alliance had now united under the sovereignty of Uladislaus, who, incited by the pious eloquence of the cardinal of St. Angelo, the legate of the Pope, and, yielding to the tears and supplications of the despot of Servia, had, at the time our story opens, quitted Buda, at the head of an immense army, crossed the Danube, and, joining his valiant viceroy, the famous John Hunniades, vaivode of Transylvania, defeated the Turks with great slaughter, relieved all Bulgaria, and pushed on to the base of Mount Haemus, known in modern times as the celebrated Balkan. Here the Turkish general, Karam Bey, awaited the Christians, and hither to his assistance was Iskander commanded to repair at the head of a body of Janissaries, who had accompanied him to Greece, and the tributary Epirots.
Had Iskander been influenced by vulgar ambition, his loftiest desires might have been fully gratified by the career which Amurath projected for him. The Turkish Sultan destined for the Grecian Prince the hand of one of his daughters, and the principal command of his armies. He lavished upon him the highest dignities and boundless wealth; and, whether it arose from a feeling of remorse, or of affection for a warrior whose unexampled valour and unrivalled skill had already added some of the finest provinces of Asia to his rule, it is certain that Iskander might have exercised over Amurath a far greater degree of influence than was enjoyed by any other of his courtiers. But the heart of Iskander responded with no sympathy to these flattering favours. His Turkish education could never eradicate from his memory the consciousness that he was a Greek; and although he was brought up in the Moslemin faith, he had at an early period of his career, secretly recurred to the creed of his Christian fathers. He beheld in Amurath the murderer of his dearest kinsmen, and the oppressor of his country; and although a certain calmness of temper, and coolness of judgment, which very early developed themselves in his character, prevented him from ever giving any indication of his secret feelings, Iskander had long meditated on the exalted duty of freeing his country.
Dispatched to Greece, to arrange the tributes and the treaties of the Grecian princes, Iskander became acquainted with the young Nicaeus; and their acquaintance soon matured into friendship. Nicaeus was inexperienced; but nature had not intended him for action. The young Prince of Athens would loll by the side of a fountain, and dream of the wonders of old days. Surrounded by his eunuchs, his priests, and his courtiers, he envied Leonidas, and would have emulated Themistocles. He was passionately devoted to the ancient literature of his country, and had the good taste, rare at that time, to prefer Demosthenes and Lysias to Chrysostom and Gregory, and the choruses of the Grecian theatre to the hymns of the Greek church. The sustained energy and noble simplicity of the character of Iskander, seemed to recall to the young prince the classic heroes over whom he was so often musing, while the enthusiasm and fancy of Nicaeus, and all that apparent weakness of will, and those quick vicissitudes of emotion, to which men of a fine susceptibility are subject, equally engaged the sympathy of the more vigorous and constant and experienced mind of his companion.
To Nicaeus, Iskander had, for the first time in his life, confided much of his secret heart; and the young Prince fired at the inspiring tale. Often they consulted over the fortunes of their country, and, excited by their mutual invention, at length even dared to hope that they might effect its deliverance, when Iskander was summoned to the army. It was a mournful parting. Both of them felt that the last few months of their lives had owed many charms to their companionship. The parting of friends, united by sympathetic tastes, is always painful; and friends, unless this sympathy subsist, had much better never meet. Iskander stepped into the ship, sorrowful, but serene; Nicaeus returned to his palace moody and fretful; lost his temper with his courtiers, and, when he was alone, even shed tears.
Three weeks bad elapsed since the parting of Iskander and Nicaeus, when the former, at the head of ten thousand men, entered by a circuitous route the defiles of Mount Haemus, and approached the Turkish camp, which had been pitched, upon a vast and elevated table-ground, commanded on all sides by superior heights, which, however, were fortified and well-garrisoned by Janissaries. The Epirots halted, and immediately prepared to raise their tents, while their commander, attended by a few of his officers, instantly proceeded to the pavilion of Karam Bey.
The arrival of Iskander diffused great joy among the soldiery; and as he passed through the encampment, the exclamations of the Turkish warriors announced how ready they were to be led to the charge by a chieftain who had been ever successful. A guard of honour, by the orders of Karam Bey, advanced to conduct Iskander to his presence; and soon, entering the pavilion, the Grecian prince exchanged courtesies with the Turkish general. After the formal compliments had passed, Karam Bey waved his hand, and the pavilion was cleared, with the exception of Mousa, the chief secretary, and favourite of Karam.
"You have arrived in good time, Iskander, to assist in the destruction of the Christian dogs," said the Bey. "Flushed with their accursed success, they have advanced too far. Twice they have endeavoured to penetrate the mountains; and each time they have been forced to retire, with great loss. The passages are well barricadoed with timber and huge fragments of rock. The dogs have lost all heart, and are sinking under the joint sufferings of hunger and cold. Our scouts tell me they exhibit symptoms of retreat. We must rush down from the mountains, and annihilate them."
"Is Hunniades here in person?" inquired Iskander.
"He is here," replied Karam, "in person, the dog of dogs! Come, Iskander, his head would be a fine Ramadan present to Amurath. 'Tis a head worth three tails, I guess."
Mousa, the chief secretary, indulged in some suppressed laughter at this joke. Iskander smiled.
"If they retreat we must assuredly attack them," observed Iskander, musingly. "I have a persuasion that Hunniades and myself will soon meet."
"If there be truth in the Prophet!" exclaimed Karam. "I have no doubt of it. Hunniades is reserved for you, Bey. We shall hold up our heads at court yet, Iskander. You have had letters lately?"
"Some slight words."
"No mention of us, of course?"
"Nothing, except some passing praise of your valour and discretion."
"We do our best, we do our best. Will Isa Bey have AEtolia, think you?"
"I have no thoughts. Our royal father will not forget his children, and Isa Bey is a most valiant chieftain."
"You heard not that he was coming here?" inquired Karam.
"Have you?" responded the cautious Iskander.
"A rumour, a rumour," replied Karam. "He is at Adrianople, think you?"
"It may be so: I am, you know, from Athens."
"True, true. We shall beat them, Iskander, we shall beat them."
"For myself, I feel sanguine," replied the Prince, and he arose to retire. "I must at present to my men. We must ascertain more accurately the movements of the Christians before we decide on our own. I am inclined myself to reconnoitre them. How far may it be?"
"There is not room to form our array between them and the mountains," replied Karam.
"'Tis well. Success attend the true believers! By to-morrow's dawn we shall know more."
Iskander returned to his men. Night was coming on. Fires and lights blazed and sparkled in every direction. The air was clear, but very cold. He entered his tent, and muffling himself up in his pelisse of sables, he mounted his horse, and declining any attendance, rode for some little distance, until he had escaped from the precincts of the camp. Then he turned his horse towards one of the wildest passes of the mountain, and galloping at great speed, never stopped until he had gained a considerable ascent. The track became steep and rugged. The masses of loose stone rendered his progress slow; but his Anatolian charger still bore him at intervals bravely, and in three hours' time he had gained the summit of Mount Haemus. A brilliant moon flooded the broad plains of Bulgaria with shadowy light. At the base of the mountainous range, the red watch-fires denoted the situation of the Christian camp.
Iskander proceeded down the descent with an audacious rapidity; but his charger was thorough-bred, and his moments were golden. Ere midnight, he had reached the outposts of the enemy, and was challenged by a sentinel.
"Who goes there?"
"A friend to Christendom."
"I have it not—nay calmly. I am alone, but I am not unarmed. I do not know the word. I come from a far country, and bear important tidings to the great Hunniades; conduct me to that chief."
"May I be crucified if I will," responded the sentinel, "before I know who and what you are. Come, keep off, unless you wish to try the effect of a Polish lance," continued the sentinel; "'tis something, I assure you, not less awkward than your Greek fire, if Greek indeed you be."
"My friend, you are a fool," said Iskander, "but time is too precious to argue any longer." So saying, the Turkish commander dismounted, and taking up the brawny sentinel in his arms with the greatest ease, threw him over his shoulder, and threatening the astounded soldier with instant death if he struggled, covered him with his pelisse, and entered the camp.
They approached a watch-fire, around which several soldiers were warming themselves.
"Who goes there?" inquired a second sentinel.
"A friend to Christendom," answered Iskander.
"The word, or I'll let fly," said the sentinel, elevating his cross bow.
"The Bridge of Buda," instantly replied the terrified prisoner beneath the pelisse of Iskander.
"Why did not you answer before, then?" said one of the guards.
"And why do you mock us by changing your voice?" said another. "Come, get on with you, and no more jokes."
Iskander proceeded through a street of tents, in some of which were lights, but all of which were silent. At length, he met the esquire of a Polish knight returning from a convivial meeting, not a little elevated.
"Who are you?" inquired Iskander.
"I am an Esquire," replied the gentleman.
"A shrewd man, I doubt not, who would make his fortune," replied Iskander. "You must know great things have happened. Being on guard I have taken a prisoner, who has deep secrets to divulge to the Lord Hunniades. Thither, to his pavilion, I am now bearing him. But he is a stout barbarian, and almost too much for me. Assist me in carrying him to the pavilion of Hunniades, and you shall have all the reward, and half the fame."
"You are a very civil spoken young gentleman," said the Esquire. "I think I know your voice. Your name, if I mistake not, is Leckinski?"
"A relative. We had a common ancestor."
"I thought so. I know the Leckinskies ever by their voice. I am free to help you on the terms you mention—all the reward and half the fame. 'Tis a strong barbarian, is it? We cannot cut his throat, or it will not divulge. All the reward and half the fame! I will be a knight to-morrow. It seems a sort of fish, and has a smell."
The Esquire seized the Shoulders of the prisoner, who would have spoken had he not been terrified by the threats of Iskander, who, carrying the legs of the sentinel, allowed the Polish gentleman to lead the way to the pavilion of Hunniades. Thither they soon arrived; and Iskander, dropping his burthen, and leaving the prisoner without to the charge of his assistant, entered the pavilion of the General of the Hungarians.
He was stopped in a small outer apartment by an officer, who inquired his purpose, and to whom he repeated his desire to see the Hungarian leader, without loss of time, on important business. The officer hesitated; but, summoning several guards, left Iskander in their custody, and, stepping behind a curtain, disappeared. Iskander heard voices, but could distinguish no words. Soon the officer returned, and, ordering the guards to disarm and search Iskander, directed the Grecian Prince to follow him. Drawing aside the curtain, Iskander and his attendant entered a low apartment of considerable size. It was hung with skins. A variety of armour and dresses were piled on couches. A middle-aged man, of majestic appearance, muffled in a pelisse of furs, with long chestnut hair, and a cap of crimson velvet and ermine, was walking up and down the apartment, and dictating some instructions to a person who was kneeling on the ground, and writing by the bright flame of a brazen lamp. The bright flame of the blazing lamp fell full upon the face of the secretary. Iskander beheld a most beautiful woman.
She looked up as Iskander entered. Her large dark eyes glanced through his soul. Her raven hair descended to her shoulders in many curls on each side of her face, and was braided with strings of immense pearls. A broad cap of white fox-skin crowned her whiter forehead. Her features were very small, but sharply moulded, and a delicate tint gave animation to her clear fair cheek. She looked up as Iskander entered, with an air rather of curiosity than embarrassment.
Hunniades stopped, and examined his visitor with a searching inquisition. "Whence come you?" inquired the Hungarian chieftain.
"From the Turkish camp," was the answer.
"An envoy or a deserter?"
"Lord Hunniades," said Iskander, "that is for your private ear. I am unarmed, and were I otherwise, the first knight of Christendom can scarcely fear. I am one in birth and rank your equal; if not in fame, at least, I trust, in honour. My time is all-precious: I can scarcely stay here while my horse breathes. Dismiss your attendant."
Hunniades darted a glance at his visitor which would have baffled a weaker brain, but Iskander stood the scrutiny calm and undisturbed. "Go, Stanislaus," said the Vaivode to the officer. "This lady, sir," continued the chieftain, "is my daughter, and one from whom I have no secrets."
Iskander bowed lowly as the officer disappeared.
"And now," said Hunniades, "to business. Your purpose?"
"I am a Grecian Prince, and a compulsory ally of the Moslemin. In a word, my purpose here is to arrange a plan by which we may effect, at the same time, your triumph, and my freedom."
"To whom, then, have I the honour of speaking?" inquired Hunniades.
"My name, great Hunniades, is perhaps not altogether unknown to you: they call me Iskander."
"What, the right arm of Amurath, the conqueror of Caramania, the flower of Turkish chivalry? Do I indeed behold that matchless warrior?" exclaimed Hunniades, and he held forth his hand to his guest, and ungirding his own sword, offered it to the Prince. "Iduna" continued Hunniades, to his daughter, "you at length behold Iskander."
"My joy is great, sir," replied Iduna, "if I indeed rightly understand that we may count the Prince Iskander a champion of the Cross."
Iskander took from his heart his golden crucifix, and kissed it before her. "This has been my companion and consolation for long years, lady," said Iskander; "you, perhaps, know my mournful history, Hunniades. Hitherto my pretended sovereign has not required me to bare my scimitar against my Christian brethren. That hour, however, has at length arrived, and it has decided me to adopt a line of conduct long meditated. Karam Bey who is aware of your necessities, the moment you commence your retreat, will attack you. I shall command his left wing. In spite of his superior power and position, draw up in array, and meet him with confidence. I propose, at a convenient moment in the day, to withdraw my troops, and with the Epirots hasten to my native country, and at once raise the standard of independence. It is a bold measure, but Success is the child of Audacity. We must assist each other with mutual diversions. Single-handed it is in vain for me to commence a struggle, which, with all adventitious advantages, will require the utmost exertion of energy, skill, and patience. But if yourself and the King Uladislaus occupy the armies of Amurath in Bulgaria, I am not without hope of ultimate success, since I have to inspire me all the most urgent interests of humanity, and combat, at the same time, for my God, my country, and my lawful crown."
"Brave Prince, I pledge you my troth," said Hunniades, coming forward and seizing his hand; "and while Iskander and Hunniades live, they will never cease until they have achieved their great and holy end."
"It is a solemn compact," said Iskander, "more sacred than if registered by all the scribes of Christendom. Lady Iduna, your prayers!"
"They are ever with the champions of the Cross," replied the daughter of Hunniades. She rose, the large cloak in which she was enveloped fell from her exquisite form. "Noble Iskander, this rosary is from the Holy Sepulchre," continued Iduna; "wear it for the sake and memory of that blessed Saviour who died for our sins."
Iskander held forth his arm and touched her delicate hand as he received the rosary, which, pressing to his lips, he placed round his neck.
"Great Hunniades," said the Grecian Prince, "I must cross the mountains before dawn. Let me venture to entreat that we should hear to-morrow that the Christian camp is in retreat."
"Let it be even so," said the Hungarian, after some thought, "and may to-morrow's sun bring brighter days to Christendom." And with these words terminated the brief and extraordinary visit of Iskander to the Christian general.
The intelligence of the breaking up of the Christian camp, and the retreat of the Christian army, soon reached the Divan of Karam Bey, who immediately summoned Iskander to consult on the necessary operations. The chieftains agreed that instant pursuit was indispensable, and soon the savage Haemus poured forth from its green bosom swarms of that light cavalry which was perhaps even a more fatal arm of the Turkish power than the famous Janissaries themselves. They hovered on the rear of the retreating Christians, charged the wavering, captured the unwary. It was impossible to resist their sudden and impetuous movements, which rendered their escape as secure as their onset was overwhelming. Wearied at length by the repeated assaults, Hunniades, who, attended by some chosen knights, had himself repaired to the rear, gave orders for the army to halt and offer battle.
Their pursuers instantly withdrew to a distance, and gradually forming into two divisions, awaited the arrival of the advancing army of the Turks. The Moslemin came forward in fierce array, and with the sanguine courage inspired by expected triumph. Very conspicuous was Iskander bounding in his crimson vest upon his ebon steed and waving his gleaming scimitar.
The Janissaries charged, calling upon Allah! with an awful shout. The Christian knights, invoking the Christian saints, received the Turks at the points of their lances. But many a noble lance was shivered that morn, and many a bold rider and worthy steed bit the dust of that field, borne down by the irresistible numbers of their fierce adversaries. Everywhere the balls and the arrows whistled through the air, and sometimes an isolated shriek heard amid the general clang, announced another victim to the fell and mysterious agency of the Greek fire.
Hunniades, while he performed all the feats of an approved warrior, watched with anxiety the disposition of the Turkish troops. Hitherto, from the nature of their position, but a portion of both armies had interfered in the contest, and as yet Iskander had kept aloof. But now, as the battle each instant raged with more fury, and as it was evident that ere long the main force of both armies must be brought into collision, Hunniades, with a terrible suspense, watched whether the Grecian prince were willing or even capable of executing his plan. Without this fulfilment, the Christian hero could not conceal from himself that the day must be decided against the Cross.
In the meantime Iskander marked the course of events with not less eagerness than Hunniades. Already Karam Bey had more than once summoned him to bring the Epirots into action. He assented; but an hour passed away without changing his position. At length, more from astonishment than rage, the Turkish commander sent his chief secretary Mousa himself to impress his wishes upon his colleague, and obtain some explanation of his views and conduct. Mousa found Iskander surrounded by some of the principal Epirot nobles, all mounted on horseback, and standing calmly under a wide-spreading plane tree. The chief secretary of Karam Bey was too skilful a courtier to permit his countenance to express his feelings, and he delivered himself of a mission rather as if he had come to request advice, than to communicate a reprimand.
"Your master is a wise man, Mousa," replied Iskander; "but even Karam Bey may be mistaken. He deems that a battle is not to be won by loitering under a shadowy tree. Now I differ with him, and I even mean to win this day by such a piece of truancy. However, it may certainly now be time for more active work. You smile encouragement, good Mousa. Giorgio, Demetrius, to your duty!"
At these words, two stout Epirots advanced to the unfortunate secretary, seized and bound him, and placed him on horseback before one of their comrades.
"Now all who love their country follow me!" exclaimed Iskander. So saying, and at the head of five thousand horsemen, Iskander quitted the field at a rapid pace.
With incredible celerity Iskander and his cavalry dashed over the plains of Roumelia, and never halted, except for short and hurried intervals of rest and repose, until they had entered the mountainous borders of Epirus, and were within fifty miles of its capital, Croia. On the eve of entering the kingdom of his fathers, Iskander ordered his guards to produce the chief secretary of Karam Bey. Exhausted with fatigue, vexation, and terror, the disconsolate Mousa was led forward.
"Cheer up, worthy Mousa!" said Iskander, lying his length on the green turf. "We have had a sharp ride; but I doubt not we shall soon find ourselves, by the blessing of God, in good quarters. There is a city at hand which they call Croia, and in which once, as the rumour runs, the son of my father should not have had to go seek for an entrance. No matter. Methinks, worthy Mousa, thou art the only man in our society that can sign thy name. Come now, write me an order signed Karam Bey to the governor of this said city, for its delivery up to the valiant champion of the Crescent, Iskander, and thou shalt ride in future at a pace more suitable to a secretary."
The worthy Mousa humbled himself to the ground, and then talking his writing materials from his girdle, inscribed the desired order, and delivered it to Iskander, who, glancing at the inscription, pushed it into his vest.
"I shall proceed at once to Croia, with a few friends," said Iskander; "do you, my bold companions, follow me this eve in various parties, and in various routes. At dead of the second night, collect in silence before the gates of Croia!"
Thus speaking, Iskander called for his now refreshed charger, and, accompanied by two hundred horsemen, bade farewell for a brief period to his troops, and soon having crossed the mountains, descended into the fertile plains of Epirus.
When the sun rose in the morning, Iskander and his friends beheld at the further end of the plain a very fine city shining in the light. It was surrounded with lofty turreted walls flanked by square towers, and was built upon a gentle eminence, which gave it a very majestic appearance. Behind it rose a lofty range of purple mountains of very picturesque form, and the highest peaks capped with snow. A noble lake, from which troops of wild fowl occasionally rose, expanded like a sheet of silver on one side of the city. The green breast of the contiguous hills sparkled with white houses.
"Behold Croia!" exclaimed Iskander. "Our old fathers could choose a site, comrades. We shall see whether they expended their time and treasure for strangers, or their own seed." So saying, he spurred his horse, and with panting hearts and smiling faces, Iskander and his company had soon arrived in the vicinity of the city.
The city was surrounded by a beautiful region of corn-fields and fruit-trees. The road was arched with the over-hanging boughs. The birds chirped on every spray. It was a blithe and merry morn. Iskander plucked a bunch of olives as he cantered along. "Dear friends," he said, looking round with an inspiring smile, "let us gather our first harvest!" And, thereupon, each putting forth his rapid hand, seized, as he rushed by, the emblem of possession, and following the example of his leader, placed it in his cap.
They arrived at the gates of the city, which was strongly garrisoned; and Iskander, followed by his train, galloped up the height of the citadel. Alighting from his horse, he was ushered into the divan of the governor, an ancient Pacha, who received the conqueror of Caramania with all the respect that became so illustrious a champion of the Crescent. After the usual forms of ceremonious hospitality, Iskander, with a courteous air presented him the order for delivering up the citadel; and the old Pacha, resigning himself to the loss of his post with Oriental submission, instantly delivered the keys of the citadel and town to Iskander, and requested permission immediately to quit the scene of his late command.
Quitting the citadel, Iskander now proceeded through the whole town, and in the afternoon reviewed the Turkish garrison in the great square. As the late governor was very anxious to quit Croia that very day, Iskander insisted on a considerable portion of the garrison accompanying him as a guard of honour, and returning the next morning. The rest he divided in several quarters, and placed the gates in charge of his own companions.
At midnight the Epirots, faithful to their orders, arrived and united beneath the walls of the city, and after inter-changing the signals agreed upon, the gates were opened. A large body instantly marched and secured the citadel. The rest, conducted by appointed leaders, surrounded the Turks in their quarters. And suddenly, in the noon of night, in that great city, arose a clang so dreadful that people leapt up from their sleep and stared with stupor. Instantly the terrace of every house blazed with torches, and it became as light as day. Troops of armed men were charging down the streets, brandishing their scimitars and yataghans, and exclaiming, "The Cross, the Cross!" "Liberty!" "Greece!" "Iskander and Epirus!" The townsmen recognised their countrymen by their language and their dress. The name of Iskander acted as a spell. They stopt not to inquire. A magic sympathy at once persuaded them that this great man had, by the grace of Heaven, recurred to the creed and country of his fathers. And so every townsman, seizing the nearest weapon, with a spirit of patriotic frenzy, rushed into the streets, crying out, "The Cross, the Cross!" "Liberty!" "Greece!" "Iskander and Epirus!" Ay! even the women lost all womanly fears, and stimulated instead of soothing the impulse of their masters. They fetched them arms, they held the torches, they sent them forth with vows and prayers and imprecations, their children clinging to their robes, and repeating with enthusiasm, phrases which they could not comprehend.
The Turks fought with the desperation of men who feel that they are betrayed, and must be victims. The small and isolated bodies were soon massacred, all with cold steel, for at this time, although some of the terrible inventions of modern warfare were introduced, their use was not general. The citadel, indeed, was fortified with cannon; but the greater part of the soldiery trusted to their crooked swords, and their unerring javelins. The main force of the Turkish garrison had been quartered in an old palace of the Archbishop, situate in the middle of the city on a slightly rising and open ground, a massy building of rustic stone. Here the Turks, although surrounded, defended themselves desperately, using their cross bows with terrible effect; and hither, the rest of the city being now secured, Iskander himself repaired to achieve its complete deliverance.
The Greeks had endeavoured to carry the principal entrance of the palace by main force, but the strength of the portal had resisted their utmost exertions, and the arrows of the besieged had at length forced them to retire to a distance. Iskander directed that two pieces of cannon should be dragged down from the citadel, and then played against the entrance. In the meantime, he ordered immense piles of damp faggots to be lit before the building, the smoke of which prevented the besieged from taking any aim. The ardour of the people was so great that the cannon were soon served against the palace, and their effects were speedily remarked. The massy portal shook; a few blows of the battering ram, and it fell. The Turks sallied forth, were received with a shower of Greek fire, and driven in with agonising yells. Some endeavoured to escape from the windows, and were speared or cut down; some appeared wringing their hands in despair upon the terraced roof. Suddenly the palace was announced to be on fire. A tall white-blueish flame darted up from a cloud of smoke, and soon, as if by magic, the whole back of the building was encompassed with rising tongues of red and raging light. Amid a Babel of shrieks, and shouts, and cheers, and prayers, and curses, the roof of the palace fell in with a crash, which produced amid the besiegers an awful and momentary silence, but in an instant they started from their strange inactivity, and rushing forward, leapt into the smoking ruins, and at the same time completed the massacre and achieved their freedom.
At break of dawn Iskander sent couriers throughout all Epirus, announcing the fall of Croia, and that he had raised the standard of independence in his ancient country. He also despatched a trusty messenger to Prince Nicaeus at Athens, and to the great Hunniades. The people were so excited throughout all Epirus, at this great and unthought-of intelligence, that they simultaneously rose in all the open country, and massacred the Turks, and the towns were only restrained in a forced submission to Amurath, by the strong garrisons of the Sultan.
Now Iskander was very anxious to effect the removal of these garrisons without loss of time, in order that if Amurath sent a great power against him, as he expected, the invading army might have nothing to rely upon but its own force, and that his attention might not in any way be diverted from effecting their overthrow. Therefore, as soon as his troops had rested, and he had formed his new recruits into some order, which, with their willing spirits, did not demand many days, Iskander set out from Croia, at the head of twelve thousand men, and marched against the strong city of Petrella, meeting in his way the remainder of the garrison of Croia on their return, who surrendered themselves to him at discretion. Petrella was only one day's march from Croia, and when Iskander arrived there he requested a conference with the governor, and told his tale so well, representing the late overthrow of the Turks by Hunniades, and the incapacity of Amurath at present to relieve him, that the Turkish commander agreed to deliver up the place, and leave the country with his troops, particularly as the alternative of Iskander to these easy terms was ever conquest without quarter. And thus, by a happy mixture of audacity and adroitness, the march of Iskander throughout Epirus was rather like a triumph than a campaign, the Turkish garrisons imitating, without any exception, the conduct of their comrades at Petrella, and dreading the fate of their comrades at the capital. In less than a month Iskander returned to Epirus, having delivered the whole country from the Moslemin yoke.
Hitherto Iskander had heard nothing either of Hunniades or Nicaeus. He learnt, therefore, with great interest, as he passed through the gates of the city, that the Prince of Athens had arrived at Croia the preceding eve, and also that his messenger had returned from the Hungarian camp. Amid the acclamations of an enthusiastic people, Iskander once more ascended the citadel of Croia. Nicaeus received him at the gate. Iskander sprang from his horse, and embraced his friend. Hand in hand, and followed by their respective trains, they entered the fortress palace.
"Dear friend," said Iskander, when they were once more alone, "you see we were right not to despair. Two months have scarcely elapsed since we parted without prospect, or with the most gloomy one, and now we are in a fair way of achieving all that we can desire. Epirus is free!"
"I came to claim my share in its emancipation," said Nicaeus, with a smile, "but Iskander is another Caesar!"
"You will have many opportunities yet, believe me, Nicaeus, of proving your courage and your patriotism," replied Iskander; "Amurath will never allow this affair to pass over in this quiet manner. I did not commence this struggle without a conviction that it would demand all the energy and patience of a long life. I shall be rewarded if I leave freedom as an heritage to my countrymen; but for the rest, I feel that I bid farewell to every joy of life, except the ennobling consciousness of performing a noble duty. In the meantime, I understand a messenger awaits me here from the great Hunniades. Unless that shield of Christendom maintain himself in his present position, our chance of ultimate security is feeble. With his constant diversion in Bulgaria, we may contrive here to struggle into success. You sometimes laugh at my sanguine temper, Nicaeus. To say the truth, I am more serene than sanguine, and was never more conscious of the strength of my opponent than now, when it appears that I have beaten him. Hark! the people cheer. I love the people, Nicaeus, who are ever influenced by genuine and generous feelings. They cheer as if they had once more gained a country. Alas! they little know what they must endure even at the best. Nay! look not gloomy; we have done great things, and will do more. Who waits without there? Demetrius! Call the messenger from Lord Hunniades."
An Epirot bearing a silken packet was now introduced, which he delivered to Iskander. Reverently touching the hand of his chieftain, the messenger then kissed his own and withdrew. Iskander broke the seal, and drew forth a letter from the silken cover.
"So! this is well!" exclaimed the prince, with great animation, as he threw his quick eye over the letter. "As I hoped and deemed, a most complete victory. Karam Bey himself a prisoner, baggage, standards, great guns, treasure. Brave soldier of the Cross! (may I prove so!) Your perfectly-devised movement, (poh, poh!) Hah! what is this?" exclaimed Iskander, turning pale; his lip quivered, his eye looked dim. He walked to an arched window. His companion, who supposed that he was reading, did not disturb him.
"Poor, poor Hunniades!" at length exclaimed Iskander, shaking his head.
"What of him?" inquired Nicaeus, quickly.
"The sharpest accident of war!" replied Iskander. "It quite clouds my spirit. We must forget these things, we must forget. Epirus! he is not a patriot who can spare a thought from thee. And yet, so young, so beautiful, so gifted, so worthy of a hero! when I saw her by her great father's side, sharing his toils, aiding his councils, supplying his necessities, methought I gazed upon a ministering angel! upon—"
"Stop, stop in mercy's name, Iskander!" exclaimed Nicaeus, in a very agitated tone. "What is all this? Surely no, surely not, surely Iduna—"
"Dead?" exclaimed Nicaeus, rushing up to his companion, and seizing his arm.
"Worse, much worse!"
"God of Heaven!" exclaimed the young Prince, with almost a frantic air. "Tell me all, tell me all! This suspense fires my brain. Iskander, you know not what this woman is to me; the sole object of my being, the bane, the blessing of my life! Speak, dear friend, speak! I beseech you! Where is Iduna?"
"A prisoner to the Turk."
"Iduna a prisoner to the Turk. I'll not believe it! Why do we wear swords? Where's chivalry? Iduna, a prisoner to the Turk! 'Tis false. It cannot be. Iskander, you are a coward! I am a coward! All are cowards! A prisoner to the Turk! Iduna! What, the Rose of Christendom! has it been plucked by such a turbaned dog as Amurath? Farewell, Epirus! Farewell, classic Athens! Farewell, bright fields of Greece, and dreams that made them brighter! The sun of all my joy and hope is set, and set for ever!"
So saying, Nicaeus, tearing his hair and garments, flung himself upon the floor, and hid his face in his robes.
Iskander paced the room with a troubled step and thoughtful brow. After some minutes he leant down by the Prince of Athens, and endeavoured to console him.
"It is in vain, Iskander, it is in vain," said Nicaeus. "I wish to die."
"Were I a favoured lover, in such a situation," replied Iskander, "I should scarcely consider death my duty, unless the sacrifice of myself preserved my mistress."
"Hah!" exclaimed Nicaeus, starting from the ground. "Do you conceive, then, the possibility of rescuing her?"
"If she live, she is a prisoner in the Seraglio at Adrianople. You are as good a judge as myself of the prospect that awaits your exertions. It is, without doubt, a difficult adventure, but such, methinks, as a Christian knight should scarcely shun."
"To horse;" exclaimed Nicaeus, "to horse—And yet what can I do? Were she in any other place but the capital I might rescue her by force, but in the heart of their empire, it is impossible. Is there no ransom that can tempt the Turk? My principality would rise in the balance beside this jewel."
"That were scarcely wise, and certainly not just," replied Iskander; "but ransom will be of no avail. Hunniades has already offered to restore Karam Bey, and all the prisoners of rank, and the chief trophies, and Amurath has refused to listen to any terms. The truth is, Iduna has found favour in the eyes of his son, the young Mahomed."
"Holy Virgin! hast thou no pity on this Christian maid?" exclaimed Nicaeus. "The young Mahomed! Shall this licentious infidel—ah! Iskander, dear, dear Iskander, you who have so much wisdom, and so much courage; you who can devise all things, and dare all things; help me, help me; on my knees I do beseech you, take up this trying cause of foul oppression, and for the sake of all you love and reverence, your creed, your country, and perchance your friend, let your great genius, like some solemn angel, haste to the rescue of the sweet Iduna, and save her, save her!"
"Some thoughts like these were rising in my mind when first I spoke," replied Iskander. "This is a better cue, far more beseeming princes than boyish tears, and all the outward misery of woe, a tattered garment and dishevelled locks. Come, Nicaeus, we have to struggle with a mighty fortune. Let us be firm as Fate itself."
Immediately after his interview with Nicaeus, Iskander summoned some of the chief citizens of Croia to the citadel, and submitting to them his arrangements for the administration of Epirus, announced the necessity of his instant departure for a short interval; and the same evening, ere the moon had risen, himself and the Prince of Athens quitted the city, and proceeded in the direction of Adrianople. They travelled with great rapidity until they reached a small town upon the frontiers, where they halted for one day. Here, in the Bazaar, Iskander purchased for himself the dress of an Armenian physician. In his long dark robes, and large round cap of black wool, his face and hands stained, and his beard and mustachios shaven, it seemed impossible that he could be recognised. Nicaeus was habited as his page, in a dress of coarse red cloth, setting tight to his form, with a red cap, with a long blue tassel. He carried a large bag containing drugs, some surgical instruments, and a few books. In this guise, as soon as the gates were open on the morrow, Iskander, mounted on a very small mule, and Nicaeus on a very large donkey, the two princes commenced the pass of the mountainous range, an arm of the Balkan which divided Epirus from Roumelia.
"I broke the wind of the finest charger in all Asia when I last ascended these mountains," said Iskander; "I hope this day's journey way be accepted as a sort of atonement."
"Faith! there is little doubt I am the best mounted of the two," said Nicaeus. "However, I hope we shall return at a sharper pace."
"How came it, my Nicaeus," said Iskander, "that you never mentioned to me the name of Iduna when we were at Athens? I little supposed when I made my sudden visit to Hunniades, that I was about to appeal to so fair a host. She is a rarely gifted lady."
"I knew of her being at the camp as little as yourself," replied the Prince of Athens, "and for the rest, the truth is, Iskander, there are some slight crosses in our loves, which Time, I hope, will fashion rightly." So saying Nicaeus pricked on his donkey, and flung his stick at a bird which was perched on the branch of a tree. Iskander did not resume a topic to which his companion seemed disinclined. Their journey was tedious. Towards nightfall they reached the summit of the usual track; and as the descent was difficult, they were obliged to rest until daybreak.
On the morrow they had a magnificent view of the rich plains of Roumelia, and in the extreme distance, the great city of Adrianople, its cupolas and minarets blazing and sparkling in the sun. This glorious prospect at once revived all their energies. It seemed that the moment of peril and of fate had arrived. They pricked on their sorry steeds; and on the morning of the next day, presented themselves at the gates of the city. The thorough knowledge which Iskander possessed of the Turkish character obtained them an entrance, which was at one time almost doubtful, from the irritability and impatience of Nicaeus. They repaired to a caravansera of good repute in the neighbourhood of the seraglio; and having engaged their rooms, the Armenian physician, attended by his page, visited several of the neighbouring coffee-houses, announcing, at the same time, his arrival, his profession, and his skill.
As Iskander felt pulses, examined tongues, and distributed drugs and charms, he listened with interest and amusement to the conversation of which he himself was often the hero. He found that the Turks had not yet recovered from their consternation at his audacity and success. They were still wondering, and if possible more astounded than indignant. The politicians of the coffee-houses, chiefly consisting of Janissaries, were loud in their murmurs. The popularity of Amurath had vanished before the triumph of Hunniades, and the rise of Iskander.
"But Allah has in some instances favoured the faithful," remarked Iskander; "I heard in my travels of your having captured a great princess of the Giaours."
"God is great!" said an elderly Turk with a long white heard. "The Hakim congratulates the faithful because they have taken a woman!"
"Not so merely," replied Iskander; "I heard the woman was a princess. If so, the people of Franguestan will pay any ransom for their great women; and, by giving up this fair Giaour, you may free many of the faithful."
"Mashallah!" said another ancient Turk, sipping his coffee. "The Hakim speaks wisely."
"May I murder my mother!" exclaimed a young Janissary, with great indignation. "But this is the very thing that makes me wild against Amurath. Is not this princess a daughter of that accursed Giaour, that dog of dogs, Hunniades? and has he not offered for her ransom our brave Karam Bey himself, and his chosen warriors? and has not Amurath said nay? And why has he said nay? Because his son, the Prince of Mahomed, instead of fighting against the Giaours, has looked upon one of their women, and has become a Mejnoun. Pah! May I murder my mother, but if the Giaours were in full march to the city, I'd not fight. And let him tell this to the Cadi who dares; for there are ten thousand of us, and we have sworn by the Kettle but we will not fight for Giaours, or those who love Giaours!"
"If you mean me, Ali, about going to the Cadi," said the chief eunuch of Mahomed, who was standing by, "let me tell you I am no tale-bearer, and scorn to do an unmanly act. The young prince can beat the Giaours without the aid of those who are noisy enough in a coffee-house when they are quiet enough in the field. And, for the rest of the business, you may all ease your hearts; for the Frangy princess you talk of is pining away, and will soon die. The Sultan has offered a hundred purses of gold to any one who cures her; but the gold will never be counted by the Hasnadar, or I will double it."
"Try your fortune, Hakim," said several laughing loungers to Iskander.
"Allah has stricken the Frangy princess," said the old Turk with a white beard.
"He will strike all Giaours," said his ancient companion, sipping his coffee. "It is so written."
"Well! I do not like to hear of women slaves pining to death," said the young Janissary, in a softened tone, "particularly when they are young. Amurath should have ransomed her, or he might have given her to one of his officers, or any young fellow that had particularly distinguished himself." And so, twirling his mustachios, and flinging down his piastre, the young Janissary strutted out of the coffee-house.
"When we were young," said the old Turk with the white beard to his companion, shaking his head, "when we were young—"
"We conquered Anatolia, and never opened our mouths," rejoined his companion.
"I never offered an opinion till I was sixty," said the old Turk; "and then it was one which had been in our family for a century."
"No wonder Hunniades carries everything before him," said his companion.
"And that accursed Iskander," said the old man.
The chief eunuch, finishing his vase of sherbet, moved away. The Armenian physician followed him.
The chief eunuch turned into a burial-ground, through which a way led, by an avenue of cypress-trees, to the quarter of the Seraglio. The Armenian physician, accompanied by his page, followed him.
"Noble sir!" said the Armenian physician; "may I trespass for a moment on your lordship's attention?"
"Worthy Hakim, is it you?" replied the chief eunuch, turning round with an encouraging smile of courteous condescension, "your pleasure?"
"I would speak to you of important matters," said the physician.
The eunuch carelessly seated himself on a richly-carved tomb, and crossing his legs with an air of pleasant superiority, adjusted a fine emerald that sparkled on his finger, and bade the Hakim address him without hesitation.
"I am a physician," said the Armenian.
The eunuch nodded.
"And I heard your lordship in the coffee-house mention that the Sultan, our sublime Master, had offered a rich reward to any one who could effect the cure of a favourite captive."
"No less a reward than one hundred purses of gold," remarked the eunuch. "The reward is proportioned to the exigency of the cue. Believe me, worthy sir, it is desperate."
"With mortal means," replied the Armenian; "but I possess a talisman of magical influence, which no disorder can resist. I would fain try its efficacy."
"This is not the first talisman that has been offered us, worthy doctor," said the eunuch, smiling incredulously.
"But the first that has been offered on these terms," said the Armenian. "Let me cure the captive, and of the one hundred purses, a moiety shall belong to yourself. Ay! so confident am I of success, that I deem it no hazard to commence our contract by this surety." And so saying, the Armenian took from his finger a gorgeous carbuncle, and offered it to the eunuch. The worthy dependent of the Seraglio had a great taste in jewellery. He examined the stone with admiration, and placed it on his finger with complacency. "I require no inducements to promote the interests of science, and the purposes of charity," said the eunuch, with a patronising air. "'Tis assuredly a pretty stone, and, as the memorial of an ingenious stranger, whom I respect, I shall, with pleasure, retain it. You were saying something about a talisman. Are you serious? I doubt not that there are means which might obtain you the desired trial; but the Prince Mahomed is as violent when displeased or disappointed as munificent when gratified. Cure this Christian captive, and we may certainly receive the promised purses: fail, and your head will as assuredly be flung into the Seraglio moat, to say nothing of my own."
"Most noble sir!" said the physician, "I am willing to undertake the experiment on the terms you mention. Rest assured that the patient, if alive, must, with this remedy, speedily recover. You marvel! Believe me, had you witnessed the cures which it has already effected, you would only wonder at its otherwise incredible influence."
"You have the advantage," replied the eunuch, "of addressing a man who has seen something of the world. I travel every year to Anatolia with the Prince Mahomed. Were I a narrow-minded bigot, and had never been five miles from Adrianople in the whole course of my life, I might indeed be sceptical. But I am a patron of science, and have heard of talismans. How much might this ring weigh, think you?"
"I have heard it spoken of as a carbuncle of uncommon size," replied the Armenian.
"Where did you say you lodged, Hakim?"
"At the Khan of Bedreddin."
"A very proper dwelling. Well, we shall see. Have you more jewels? I might, perhaps, put you in the way of parting with some at good prices. The Khan of Bedreddin is very conveniently situated. I may, perhaps, towards evening, taste your coffee at the Khan of Bedreddin, and we will talk of this said talisman. Allah be with you, worthy Hakim!" The eunuch nodded, not without encouragement, and went his way.
"Anxiety alone enabled me to keep my countenance," said Nicaeus. "A patron of science, forsooth! Of all the insolent, shallow-brained, rapacious coxcombs—"
"Hush, my friend!" said Iskander, with a smile. "The chief eunuch of the heir apparent of the Turkish empire is a far greater man than a poor prince, or a proscribed rebel. This worthy can do our business, and I trust will. He clearly bites, and a richer bait will, perhaps, secure him. In the meantime, we must be patient, and remember whose destiny is at stake."
The chief eunuch did not keep the adventurous companions long in suspense; for, before the muezzin had announced the close of day from the minarets, he had reached the Khan of Bedreddin, and inquired for the Armenian physician.
"We have no time to lose," said the eunuch to Iskander. "Bring with you whatever you may require, and follow me."
The eunuch led the way, Iskander and Nicaeus maintaining a respectful distance. After proceeding down several streets, they arrived at the burial-ground, where they had conversed in the morning; and when they had entered that more retired spot, the eunuch fell back, and addressed his companion.
"Now, worthy Hakim," he said, "if you deceive me, I will never patronize a man of science again. I found an opportunity of speaking to the Prince this afternoon of your talisman, and he has taken from my representations such a fancy for its immediate proof, that I found it quite impossible to postpone its trial even until to-morrow. I mentioned the terms. I told the Prince your life was the pledge. I said nothing of the moiety of the reward, worthy Hakim. That is an affair between ourselves. I trust to your honour, and I always act thus with men of science."
"I shall not disgrace my profession or your confidence, rest assured," replied Iskander. "And am I to see the captive to-night?"
"I doubt it not. Are you prepared? We might, perhaps, gain a little time, if very necessary."
"By no means, sir; Truth is ever prepared."
Thus conversing, they passed through the burial-ground, and approached some high, broad walls, forming a terrace, and planted with young sycamore-trees. The eunuch tapped with his silver stick, at a small gate, which opened, and admitted them into a garden, full of large clumps of massy shrubs. Through these a winding walk led for some way, and then conducted them to an open lawn, on which was situate a vast and irregular building. As they approached the pile, a young man of very imperious aspect rushed forward from a gate, and abruptly accosted Iskander.
"Are you the Armenian physician?" he inquired.
Iskander bowed assent.
"Have you got your talisman? You know the terms? Cure this Christian girl and you shall name your own reward; fail, and I shall claim your forfeit head."
"The terms are well understood, mighty Prince," said Iskander, for the young man was no less a personage than the son of Amurath, and future conqueror of Constantinople; "but I am confident there will be no necessity for the terror of Christendom claiming any other heads than those of his enemies."
"Kaflis will conduct you at once to your patient," said Mahomed. "For myself, I cannot rest until I know the result of your visit. I shall wander about these gardens, and destroy the flowers, which is the only pleasure now left me."
Kaflis motioned to his companions to advance, and they entered the Seraglio.
At the end of a long gallery they came to a great portal, which Kaflis opened, and Iskander and Nicaeus for a moment supposed that they had arrived at the chief hall of the Tower of Babel, but they found the shrill din only proceeded from a large company of women, who were employed in distilling the rare atar of the jasmine flower. All their voices ceased on the entrance of the strangers, as if by a miracle; but when they had examined them, and observed that it was only a physician and his boy, their awe, or their surprise, disappeared; and they crowded round Iskander, some holding out their wrists, others lolling out their tongues, and some asking questions, which perplexed alike the skill and the modesty of the adventurous dealer in magical medicine. The annoyance, however, was not of great duration, for Kaflis so belaboured their fair shoulders with his official baton, that they instantly retreated with precipitation, uttering the most violent shrieks, and bestowing on the eunuch so many titles, that Iskander and his page were quite astounded at the intuitive knowledge which the imprisoned damsels possessed of that vocabulary of abuse, which is in general mastered only by the experience of active existence.
Quitting this chamber, the eunuch and his companions ascended a lofty staircase. They halted at length before a door. "This is the chamber of the tower," said their guide, "and here we shall find the fair captive." He knocked, the door was opened by a female slave, and Iskander and Nicaeus, with an anxiety they could with difficulty conceal, were ushered into a small but sumptuous apartment. In the extremity was a recess covered with a light gauzy curtain. The eunuch bidding them keep in the background, advanced, and cautiously withdrawing the curtain slightly aside, addressed some words in a low voice to the inmate of the recess. In a few minutes the eunuch beckoned to Iskander to advance, and whispered to him: "She would not at first see you, but I have told her you are a Christian, the more the pity, and she consents." So saying, he withdrew the curtain, and exhibited a veiled female figure lying on a couch.
"Noble lady," said the physician in Greek, which he had ascertained the eunuch did not comprehend; "pardon the zeal of a Christian friend. Though habited in this garb, I have served under your illustrious sire. I should deem my life well spent in serving the daughter of the great Hunniades."
"Kind stranger," replied the captive, "I was ill prepared for such a meeting. I thank you for your sympathy, but my sad fortunes are beyond human aid."
"God works by humble instruments, noble lady," said Iskander, "and with his blessing we may yet prosper."
"I fear that I must look to death as my only refuge," replied Iduna, "and still more, I fear that it is not so present a refuge as my oppressors themselves imagine. But you are a physician; tell me then how speedily Nature will make me free."
She held forth her hand, which Iskander took and involuntarily pressed. "Noble lady," he said, "my skill is a mere pretence to enter these walls. The only talisman I bear with me is a message from your friends."
"Indeed!" said Iduna, in an agitated tone.
"Restrain yourself, noble lady," said Iskander, interposing, "restrain yourself. Were you any other but the daughter of Hunniades I would not have ventured upon this perilous exploit. But I know that the Lady Iduna has inherited something more than the name of her great ancestors—their heroic soul. If ever there were a moment in her life in which it behoved her to exert all her energies, that moment has arrived. The physician who addresses her, and his attendant who waits at hand, are two of the Lady Iduna's most devoted friends. There is nothing that they will not hazard, to effect her delivery; and they have matured a plan of escape which they are sanguine must succeed. Yet its completion will require, on her part, great anxiety of mind, greater exertion of body, danger, fatigue, privation. Is the Lady Iduna prepared for all this endurance, and all this hazard?"
"Noble friend," replied Iduna, "for I cannot deem you a stranger, and none but a most chivalric knight could have entered upon this almost forlorn adventure; you have not, I trust, miscalculated my character. I am a slave, and unless heaven will interpose, must soon be a dishonoured one. My freedom and my fame are alike at stake. There is no danger, and no suffering which I will not gladly welcome, provided there be even a remote chance of regaining my liberty and securing my honour."
"You are in the mind I counted on. Now, mark my words, dear lady. Seize an opportunity this evening of expressing to your gaolers that you have already experienced some benefit from my visit, and announce your rising confidence in my skill. In the meantime I will make such a report that our daily meetings will not be difficult. For the present, farewell. The Prince Mahomed waits without, and I would exchange some words with him before I go."
"And must we part without my being acquainted with the generous friends to whom I am indebted for an act of devotion which almost reconciles me to my sad fate?" said Iduna. "You will not, perhaps, deem the implicit trust reposed in you by one whom you have no interest to deceive, and who, if deceived, cannot be placed in a worse position than she at present fills, as a very gratifying mark of confidence, yet that trust is reposed in you; and let me, at least, soothe the galling dreariness of my solitary hours, by the recollection of the friends to whom I am indebted for a deed of friendship which has filled me with a feeling of wonder from which I have not yet recovered."
"The person who has penetrated the Seraglio of Constantinople in disguise to rescue the Lady Iduna," answered Iskander, "is the Prince Nicaeus."
"Nicaeus!" exclaimed Iduna, in an agitated tone. "The voice to which I listen is surely not that of the Prince Nicaeus; nor the form on which I gaze," she added, as she unveiled. Beside her stood the tall figure of the Armenian physician. She beheld his swarthy and unrecognised countenance. She cast her dark eyes around with an air of beautiful perplexity.
"I am a friend of the Prince Nicaeus," said the physician. "He is here. Shall he advance? Alexis," called cut, Iskander, not waiting for her reply. The page of the physician came forward, but the eunuch accompanied him. "All is right," said Iskander to Kaflis. "We are sure of our hundred purses. But, without doubt, with any other aid, the case were desperate."
"There is but one God," said the eunuch, polishing his carbuncle, with a visage radiant as the gem. "I never repented patronizing men of science. The prince waits without. Come along!" He took Iskander by the arm. "Where is your boy? What are you doing there, sir?" inquired the eunuch, sharply, of Nicaeus, who, was tarrying behind, and kissing the hand of Iduna.
"I was asking the lady for a favour to go to the coffee-house with;" replied Nicaeus, "you forget that I am to have none of the hundred purses."
"True," said the eunuch; "there is something in that. Here, boy, here is a piastre for you. I like to encourage men of science, and all that belong to them. Do not go and spend it all in one morning, boy, and when the fair captive is cured, if you remind me, boy, perhaps I may give you another."
Kaflis and his charge again reached the garden. The twilight was nearly past. A horseman galloped up to them, followed by several running footmen. It was the prince.
"Well, Hakim," he inquired, in his usual abrupt style, "can you cure her?"
"Yes;" answered Iskander, firmly.
"Now listen, Hakim," said Mahomed. "I must very shortly leave the city, and proceed into Epirus at the head of our troops. I have sworn two things, and I have sworn them by the holy stone. Ere the new moon, I will have the heart of Iduna and the head of Iskander!"
The physician bowed.
"If you can so restore the health of this Frangy girl," continued Mahomed, "that she may attend me within ten days into Epirus, you shall claim from my treasury what sum you like, and become physician to the Seraglio. What say you?"
"My hope and my belief is," replied Iskander, "that within ten days she may breathe the air of Epirus."
"By my father's beard, you are a man after my own heart," exclaimed the prince; "and since thou dealest in talismans, Hakim, can you give me a charm that you will secure me a meeting with this Epirot rebel within the term, so that I may keep my oath. What say you? what say you?"
"There are such spells," replied Iskander. "But mark, I can only secure the meeting, not the head."
"That is my part," said Mahomed, with an arrogant sneer. "But the meeting, the meeting?"
"You know the fountain of Kallista in Epirus. Its virtues are renowned."
"I have beard of it."
"Plunge your scimitar in its midnight waters thrice, on the eve of the new moon, and each time summon the enemy you would desire to meet. He will not fail you."
"If you cure the captive, I will credit the legend, and keep the appointment," replied Mahomed, thoughtfully.
"I have engaged to do that," replied the physician.
"Well, then, I shall redeem my pledge," said the prince
"But mind," said the physician, "while I engage to cure the lady and produce the warrior, I can secure your highness neither the heart of the one nor the head of the other."
"'Tis understood," said Mahomed.
The Armenian physician did not fail to attend his captive patient at an early hour on the ensuing morn. His patron Kaflis received him with an encouraging smile.
"The talisman already works;" said the eunuch: "she has passed a good night, and confesses to an improvement. Our purses are safe. Methinks I already count the gold. But I say, worthy Hakim, come hither, come hither," and Kaflis looked around to be sure that no one was within hearing, "I say," and here he put on a very mysterious air indeed, "the prince is generous; you understand? We go shares. We shall not quarrel. I never yet repented patronizing a man of science, and I am sure I never shall. The prince, you see, is violent, but generous. I would not cure her too soon, eh?"
"You take a most discreet view of affairs," responded Iskander, with an air of complete assent, and they entered the chamber of the tower.
Iduna performed her part with great dexterity; but, indeed, it required less skill than herself and her advisers had at first imagined. Her malady, although it might have ended fatally, was in its origin entirely mental, and the sudden prospect of freedom, and of restoration to her country and her family, at a moment when she had delivered herself up to despair, afforded her a great and instantaneous benefit. She could not, indeed, sufficiently restrain her spirits, and smiled incredulously when Iskander mentioned the impending exertion and fatigues with doubt and apprehension. His anxiety to return immediately to Epirus, determined him to adopt the measures for her rescue without loss of time, and on his third visit, he prepared her for making the great attempt on the ensuing morn. Hitherto Iskander had refrained from revealing himself to Iduna. He was induced to adopt this conduct by various considerations. He could no longer conceal from himself that the daughter of Hunniades exercised an influence over his feelings which he was unwilling to encourage. His sincere friendship for Nicaeus, and his conviction that It was his present duty to concentrate all his thought and affection in the cause of his country, would have rendered him anxious to have resisted any emotions of the kind, even could he have flattered himself that there was any chance of their being returned by the object of his rising passion. But Iskander was as modest as he was brave and gifted. The disparity of age between himself and Iduna appeared an insuperable barrier to his hopes, even had there been no other obstacle. Iskander struggled with his love, and with his strong mind the struggle, though painful, was not without success. He felt that he was acting in a manner which must ultimately tend to the advantage of his country, the happiness of his friend, and perhaps the maintenance of his own self-respect. For he had too much pride not to be very sensible to the bitterness of rejection.
Had he perceived more indications of a very cordial feeling subsisting between Nicaeus and Iduna, he would perhaps not have persisted in maintaining his disguise. But he had long suspected that the passion of the Prince of Athens was not too favourably considered by the daughter of Hunniades, and he was therefore exceedingly anxious that Nicaeus should possess all the credit of the present adventure, which Iskander scarcely doubted, if successful, would allow Nicaeus to urge irresistible claims to the heart of a mistress whom he had rescued at the peril of his life from slavery and dishonour, to offer rank, reputation, and love. Iskander took, therefore, several opportunities of leading Iduna to believe that he was merely the confidential agent of Nicaeus, and that the whole plan of her rescue from the Seraglio of Adrianople bad been planned by his young friend. In the meantime, during the three days on which they had for short intervals met, very few words had been interchanged between Nicaeus and his mistress. Those words, indeed, had been to him of the most inspiring nature, and expressed such a deep scale of gratitude, and such lively regard, that Nicaeus could no longer resist the delightful conviction that he had at length created a permanent interest in her heart. Often he longed to rush to her couch, and press her hand to his lips. Even the anticipation of future happiness could not prevent him from envying the good fortune of Iskander, who was allowed to converse with her without restraint; and bitterly, on their return to the khan, did he execrate the pompous eunuch for all the torture which he occasioned him by his silly conversation, and the petty tyranny of office with which Kaflis always repressed his attempts to converse for a moment with Iduna.
In the meantime all Adrianople sounded with the preparations for the immediate invasion of Epirus, and the return of Iskander to his country became each hour more urgent. Everything being prepared, the adventurers determined on the fourth morning to attempt the rescue. They repaired as usual to the Serail, and were attended by Kaflis to the chamber of the tower, who congratulated Iskander on their way on the rapid convalescence of the captive. When they had fairly entered the chamber, the physician being somewhat in advance, Nicaeus, who was behind, commenced proceedings by knocking down the eunuch, and Iskander instantly turning round to his assistance, they succeeded in gagging and binding the alarmed and astonished Kaflis. Iduna then exhibited herself in a costume exactly similar to that worn by Nicaeus, and which her friends had brought to her in their big. Iskander and Iduna then immediately quitted the Serail without notice or suspicion, and hurried to the khan, where they mounted their horses, that were in readiness, and hastened without a moment's loss of time to a fountain without the gates, where they awaited the arrival of Nicaeus with anxiety. After remaining a few minutes in the chamber of the tower, the Prince of Athens stole out, taking care to secure the door upon Kaflis, he descended the staircase, and escaped through the Serail without meeting any one, and had nearly reached the gate of the gardens, when he was challenged by some of the eunuch guard at a little distance.
"Hilloa!" exclaimed one; "I thought you passed just now?"
"So I did," replied Nicaeus, with nervous effrontery; "but I came back for my bag, which I left behind," and, giving them no time to reflect, he pushed his way through the gate with all the impudence of a page. He rushed through the burial-ground, hurried through the streets, mounted his horse, and galloped through the gates. Iskander and Iduna were in sight, he waved his hand for them at once to proceed, and in a moment, without exchanging a word, they were all galloping at full speed, nor did they breathe their horses until sunset.
By nightfall they had reached a small wood of chestnut-trees, where they rested for two hours, more for the sake of their steeds than their own refreshment, for anxiety prevented Iduna from indulging in any repose, as much as excitement prevented her from feeling any fatigue. Iskander lit a fire and prepared their rough meal, unharnessed the horses, and turned them out to their pasture. Nicaeus made Iduna a couch of fern and supported her head, while, in deference to his entreaties she endeavoured in vain to sleep. Before midnight they were again on their way, and proceeded at a rapid pace towards the mountains, until a few hours before noon, when their horses began to sink under the united influence of their previous exertions and the increasing heat of the day. Iskander looked serious, and often threw a backward glance in the direction of Adrianople.
"We must be beyond pursuit," said Nicaeus. "I dare say poor Kaflis is still gagged and bound."
"Could we but reach the mountains," replied his companion, "I should have little fear, but I counted upon our steeds carrying us there without faltering. We cannot reckon upon more than three hours' start, prince. Our friend Kaflis is too important a personage to be long missed."
"The Holy Virgin befriend us!" said the Lady Iduna. "I ca urge my poor horse no more."
They had now ascended a small rising ground, which gave the wide prospect over the plain. Iskander halted and threw an anxious glance around him.
"There are some horsemen in the distance whom I do not like," said the physician.
"I see them," said Nicaeus; "travellers like ourselves."
"Let us die sooner than be taken," said Iduna.
"Move on," said the physician, "and let me observe these horsemen alone. I would there were some forest at hand. In two hours we may gain the mountains."
The daughter of Hunniades and the Prince of Athens descended the rising ground. Before them, but at a considerable distance was a broad and rapid river, crossed by a ruinous Roman bridge. The opposite bank of the river was the termination of a narrow plain, which led immediately to the mountains.
"Fair Iduna, you are safe," said the Prince of Athens.
"Dear Nicaeus," replied his companion, "imagine what I feel."
"It is too wild a moment to express my gratitude."
"I trust that Iduna will never express her gratitude to Nicaeus," answered the prince; "it is not, I assure you, a favourite word with him."
Their companion rejoined them, urging his wearied horse to its utmost speed.
"Nicaeus!" he called out, "halt."
They stopped their willing horses.
"How now! my friend;" said the prince; "you look grave."
"Lady Iduna!" said the Armenian, "we are pursued."
Hitherto the prospect of success, and the consciousness of the terrible destiny that awaited failure, had supported Iduna under exertions, which under any other circumstances must have proved fatal. But to learn, at the very moment that she was congratulating herself on the felicitous completion of their daring enterprise, that that dreaded failure was absolutely impending, demanded too great an exertion of her exhausted energies. She turned pale; she lifted up her imploring hands and eyes to heaven in speechless agony, and then, bending down her head, wept with unrestrained and harrowing violence. The distracted Nicaeus sprung from his horse, endeavoured to console the almost insensible Iduna, and then woefully glancing at his fellow adventurer, wrung his hands in despair. His fellow adventurer seemed lost in thought.