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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 6. - 5/10 -
He apologized for his prolonged absence in very intelligible Greek, having learnt it in his youth as a caravan-leader to Alexandria; he expressed his regret at having left Orion to wait so long, blamed his servants for not inviting him indoors and for neglecting to offer him refreshment. As they crossed the garden-terrace he laid his hand on the youth's shoulder, explained to him that the lion he had been pursuing, though wounded by one of his arrows, had got away, and added that he hoped to make good his loss by the conquest of a nobler quarry than the beast of prey.
There was nothing for it but that the young man should return courtesy for courtesy; nor did he find it difficult. The Arab's fine pleasant voice, full of sincere cordiality, and the simple distinction and dignity of his manner appealed to Orion, flattered him, gave him confidence, and attracted him to the older man who was, besides, a valiant hero.
In his brightly-lighted room hung with costly Persian tapestry, Amru invited his guest to share his simple hunter's supper after the Arab fashion; so Orion placed himself on one side of the divan while the Governor and his Vekeel--[Deputy]--Obada--a Goliath with a perfectly black moorish face squatted rather than sat on the other, after the manner of his people.
Amru informed his guest that the black giant knew no Greek, and he only now and then threw in a few words which the general interpreted to Orion when he thought fit; but the negro's remarks were not more pleasing to the young Egyptian than his manner and appearance.
Obada had in his childhood been a slave and had worked his way up to his present high position by his own exertions; his whole attention seemed centred in the food before him, which he swallowed noisily and greedily, and yet that he was able to follow the conversation very well, in spite of his ignorance of Greek, his remarks sufficiently proved. Whenever he looked up from the dishes, which were placed in the midst on low tables, to put in a word, he rolled his big eyes so that only the whites remained visible; but when he turned them on Orion, their small, black pupils transfixed him with a keen and, as the young man thought, exceedingly sinister glare.
The presence of this man oppressed him; he had heard of his base origin, which to Orion's lofty ideas rendered him contemptible, of his fierce valor, and remarkable shrewdness; and though he did not understand what Obada said, more than once there was something in the man's tone that brought the blood into his face and made him set his teeth. The more kindly and delightful the effect of the Arab's speech and manner, the more irritating and repulsive was his subordinate; and Orion was conscious that he would have expressed himself more freely, and have replied more candidly to many questions, if he had been alone with Amru.
At first his host made enquiries as to his residence in Constantinople and asked much about his father; and he seemed to take great interest in all he heard till Obada interrupted Orion, in the midst of a sentence, with an enquiry addressed to his superior. Amru hastily answered him in Arabic and soon after gave a fresh turn to the conversation.
The Vekeel had asked why Amru allowed that Egyptian boy to chatter so much before settling the matter about which he had sent for him, and his master had replied that a man is best entertained when he has most opportunity given him for hearing himself talk; that moreover the young man was well-informed, and that all he had to say was interesting and important.
The Moslems drank nothing; Orion was served with capital wine, but he took very little, and at length Amru began to speak of his father's funeral, alluding to the Patriarch's hostility, and adding that he had talked with him that morning and had been surprised at the marked antagonism he had confessed towards his deceased fellow-believer, who seemed formerly to have been his friend. Then Orion spoke out; he explained fully what the reasons were that had moved the Patriarch to display such conspicuous and far-reaching animosity towards his father. All that Benjamin cared for was to stand clear in the eyes of Christendom of the reproach of having abandoned a Christian land to conquerors who were what Christians termed "infidels" and his aim at present was to put his father forward as the man wholly and solely responsible for the supremacy of the Moslems in the land.
"True, true; I understand," Amru put in, and when the young man went on to tell him that the final breach between the Patriarch and the Mukaukas George had been about the convent of St. Cecilia, whose rights the prelate had tried to abrogate by an illegal interpretation of certain ancient and perfectly clear documents; the Arab exchanged rapid glances with the Vekeel and then broke in:
"And you? Are you disposed to submit patiently to the blow struck at you and at your parent's worthy memory by this restless old man, who hates you as he did your father before you?"
"Certainly not," replied the youth proudly.
"That is right!" cried the general. "That is what I expected of you; but tell me now, with what weapons you, a Christian, propose to defy this shrewd and powerful man, in whose hands--as I know full well--you have placed the weal and woe, not of your souls alone...."
"I do not know yet," replied Orion, and as he met a glance of scorn from the Vekeel, he looked down.
At this Amru rose, went closer to him, and said "And you will seek them in vain, my young friend; nor, if you found them, could you use them. It is easier to hit a woman, an eel, a soaring bird, than these supple, weak, unarmed, robed creatures, who have love and peace on their tongues and use their physical helplessness as a defence, aiming invisible but poisoned darts at those they hate--at you first and foremost, Son of the Mukaukas; I know it and I advise you: Be on your guard! If indeed manly revenge for this slight on your father's memory is dear to your heart you can easily procure it--but only on one condition."
"Show it me!" cried Orion with flaming eyes. "Become one of us."
"That is what I came here for. My brain and my arm from this day forth are at the service of the rulers of my country: yourself and our common master the Khaliff."
"Ya Salaam--that is well!" cried Amru, laying his hand on Orion's shoulder. "There is but one God, and yours is ours, too, for there is none other but He! you will not have to sacrifice much in becoming a Moslem, for we, too, count your lord Jesus as one of the prophets; and even you must confess that the last and greatest of them is Mohammed, the true prophet of God. Every man must acknowledge our lord Mohammed, who does not wilfully shut his eyes to the events which have come about under his government and in his name. Your own father admitted. . ."
"He was forced to admit that we are more zealous, more earnest, more deeply possessed by our faith than you, his own fellow-believers."
"I know it."
"And when I told him that I had given orders that the desk for the reader of the Koran in our new mosque should be discarded, because when he stepped up to it he was uplifted above the other worshippers, the weary Mukaukas was quite agitated with satisfaction and uttered a loud cry of approbation. We Moslems--for that was what my commands implied--must all be equal in the presence of God, the Eternal, the Almighty, the All- merciful; their leader in prayer must not be raised above them, even by a head; the teaching of the Prophet points the road to Paradise, to all alike, we need no earthly guide to show us the way. It is our faith, our righteousness, our good deeds that open or close the gates of heaven; not a key in the hand of a priest. When you are one of us, no Benjamin can embitter your happiness on earth, no Patriarch can abrogate your claims and your father's to eternal bliss. You have chosen well, boy! Your hand, my convert to the true faith!"
And he held out his hand to Orion with glad excitement. But the young man did not take it; he drew back a little and said rather uneasily:
"Do not misunderstand me, great Captain. Here is my hand, and I can know no greater honor than that of grasping yours, of wielding my sword under your command, of wearing it out in your service and in that of my lord the Khaliff; but I cannot be untrue to my faith."
"Then be crushed by Benjamin--you and all your people!" cried Armu, disappointed and angry. He waved his hand with a gesture of disgust and dismissal, and then turned to the Vekeel with a shrug, to answer the man's scornful exclamation.
Orion looked at them in dumb indecision; but he quickly collected himself, and said in a tone of modest but urgent entreaty:
"Nay; hear me and do not reject my petition. It could only be to my advantage to go over to you; and yet I can resist so great a temptation; but for that very reason I shall keep faith with you as I do to my religion."
"Until the priests compel you to break it," interrupted the Arab roughly.
"No, no!" cried Orion. "I know that Benjamin is my foe; but I have lost a beloved parent, and I believe in a meeting beyond the grave."
"So do I," replied the Moslem. "And there is but one Paradise and one Hell, as there is but one God."
"What gives you this conviction?"
"Then forgive me if I cling to mine, and hope to see my father once more in that Heaven...."
"The heaven to which, as you fools believe, no souls but your own are admitted! But supposing that it is open only to the immortal spirit of Moslems and closed against Christians?--What do you know of that Paradise? I know your sacred Scriptures--Is it described in them? But the All-merciful allowed our Prophet to look in, and what he saw he has described as though the Most High himself had guided his reed. The Moslem knows what Heaven has to offer him,--but you? Your Hell, you do know; your priests are more readier to curse than to bless. If one of you deviates by one hair's breadth from their teaching they thrust him out forthwith to the abode of the damned.--Me and mine, the Greek Christians, and--take my word for it boy--first and foremost you and your father!"
"If only I were sure of finding him there!" cried Orion striking his breast. "I really should not fear to follow him. I must meet him, must see him again, were it in Hell itself!"
At these words the Vekeel burst into loud laughter, and when Amru reproved him sharply the negro retorted and a vehement dialogue ensued.
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