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- The Wanderer's Necklace - 50/53 -
time how she was glad he had made it clear so soon that what she drank from the gold cup which now stood upon our table was no more than rose water.
So strong is the working of the mind that already she had begun to feel as though poison were numbing her heart and clouding her brain, and was sure that soon she would have fallen into the sleep which Harun had warned her would end in death.
"Had he been a true physician, he would have known that this might be so, and that such grim jests are very dangerous," I said. Then I added, for I did not wish to dwell longer upon a scene the memory of which was dreadful to me, although it had ended well,
"Tell us, Martina, is it true that those rich possessions of yours in Alexandria which the Caliph gave you are sold?"
"Yes, Olaf," she answered, "to a company of Greek merchants, and not so ill. The contract was signed but yesterday. It was my wish that we should leave Lesbos and go to live in this place, as we might have done with safety under Harun's signed /firman/, but Jodd here refused."
"Aye," said Jodd in his big voice. "Am I one to dwell among Moslems and make money out of trade and gardens in however fine a house? Why, I should have been fighting with these prophet-worshippers within a month, and had my throat cut. Moreover, how could I bear to be separated from my general, and whatever she may think, how could Martina bear to lose sight of her god-son? Why, Olaf, I tell you that, although you are married and she is married, she still thinks twice as much of you as she does of me. Oh! blind man's dog once, blind man's dog always! Look not so angry, Martina. Why, I wonder, does the truth always make women angry?" and he burst into one of his great laughs.
At this moment Heliodore rose from the table and walked to the open window-place to speak to our children and Martina's, a merry company who were playing together in the garden. Here she stood a while studying the beautiful view of the bay beneath; then of a sudden called out,
"A ship! A ship sailing into the harbour, and it flies the Imperial standard."
"Then pray God she brings no bad news," I said, who feared that Imperial standard and felt that we had all been somewhat too happy of late. Moreover, I knew that no royal ship was looked for from Byzantium at this time, and dreaded lest this one should bear letters from the new Emperor dismissing me from my office, or even worse tidings.
"What bad news should she bring?" growled Jodd. "Oh! I know what is in your mind, General, but if this upstart Nicephorus is wise, he'll leave you alone, since Lesbos does not want another governor, and will tell him so if there be need. Yes, it will take more than one ship of war, aye, and more than three, to set up another governor in Lesbos. Nay, rebuke me not, General, for I at least have sworn no oath of homage to this Nicephorus, nor have the other Northmen or the men of Lesbos."
"You are like a watchdog, Jodd, barking at you know not what, just because it is strange. Go now, I pray you, to the quay, and bring back to us news of this ship."
So he went, and for the next two hours or more I sat in my private room dictating letters to Heliodore on matters connected with the duties of my office. The work came to an end at last, and I was preparing to take my evening ride on a led mule when Martina entered the room.
"Do you ride with us to-night, Martina?" I asked, recognising her step.
"No, Olaf," she said quickly, "nor I think can you. Here are letters for you from Byzantium. Jodd has brought them from the ship."
"Where is Jodd?" I said.
"Without, in the company of the captain of the ship, some guards, and a prisoner."
"Perchance the letters will tell you," she replied evasively. "Have I your command to open and read? They are marked 'Most Secret.'"
I nodded, since Martina often acted as my secretary in high matters, being from her training skilled in such things. So she broke the seals and read to myself and to Heliodore, who also was present in the room, as follows:
"'To the Excellent Michael, a General of our armies and Governor of the Isle of Lesbos, Greetings from Nicephorus, by the will of God Emperor.
"'Know, O Michael, that we, the Emperor, reposing especial faith in you our trusted servant, with these letters deliver into your keeping a certain prisoner of State. This prisoner is none other than Irene, who aforetime was Empress.
"'Because of her many wickednesses in the sight of God and man we by the decree of the People, of the Army, of the Senate and of the high Officers of State amidst general rejoicing deposed the said Irene, widow of the Emperor Leo and mother of the late Emperor Constantine, and placed ourselves upon the throne. The said Irene, at her own request, we consigned to the place called the Island of Princes, setting her in charge of certain holy monks. Whilst there, abusing our mercy and confidence, she set on foot plots to murder our Person and repossess herself of the throne.
"'Now our Councillors with one voice urged that she should be put to death in punishment of her crimes, but we, being mindful of the teaching of our Lord and Saviour and of His saying that we should turn the other cheek to those who smite us, out of our gentle pity have taken another counsel.
"'Learn now, most excellent Michael the Blind, who once were known as Olaf Red-Sword, that we hand over to your keeping the person of Irene, aforetime Empress, charging you to deal with her as she dealt with you and as she dealt also with the late Emperor Constantine, the son of her body, for thus shall her evil plottings be brought to naught.'"
"By God's Name, he means that I must blind her!" I exclaimed.
Making no answer, Martina went on with the letter----
"'Should the said Irene survive her just punishment, we command you to make sufficient provision for her daily wants, but no more, and to charge the same against the sum due Us from the revenues of Lesbos. Should she die at once, or at any future time, give to her decent private burial, and report to Us the circumstances of her death duly attested.
"'Keep these Presents secret and do not act upon them until the ship which brings them and the prisoner to you has sailed for Byzantium, which it is ordered to do as soon as it has been revictualled. On your head be it to carry out these our commands, for which you shall answer with your life and those of your wife and children. This signed and sealed at our Court of Byzantium on the twelfth day of the sixth month of the first year of our reign, and countersigned by the high officers whose names appear beneath.'"
Such was this awful letter that, having read, Martina thrust into my hand as though she would be rid of it. Then followed a silence, which at length Martina broke.
"Your commands, Excellency," she said in a dry voice. "I understand that the--the--prisoner is in the ante-room in charge of the Captain Jodd."
"Then let her remain in the charge of the Captain Jodd," I exclaimed angrily, "and in your charge, Martina, who are accustomed to attending upon her, and know that you are both answerable for her safety with your lives. Send the captain of the ship to me and prepare a discharge for him. I will not see this woman till he has sailed, since until then I am commanded to keep all secret. Send also the head officer of the guard."
Three days went by. The Imperial ship had sailed, taking with her my formal acknowledgment of the Emperor's letter, and the time had come when once more I must meet Irene face to face.
I sat in the audience chamber of my Great House, and there was present with me only Jodd, my lieutenant in office. Being blind, I dared not receive a desperate woman alone, fearing lest she might stab me or do herself some mischief. At the door of the chamber Jodd took her from the guards, whom he bade remain within call, and conducted her to where I sat. He told me afterwards that she was dressed as a nun, a white hood half hiding her still beautiful face and a silver crucifix hanging upon her breast.
As I heard her come I rose and bowed to her, and my first words to her were to pray her to be seated.
"Nay," she answered in that rich, well-remembered voice of hers, "a prisoner stands before the judge. I greet you, General Olaf, I pray your pardon--Michael--after long years of separation. You have changed but little, and I rejoice to see that your health is good and that the rank and prosperity which I gave have not been taken from you."
"I greet you, Madam," (almost had I said Augusta), I answered, then continued hurriedly: "Lady Irene, I have received certain commands concerning you from the Emperor Nicephorus which it is best that you should hear, so that you shall hold me quit of blame in aught that it may be my duty to inflict upon you. Read them, Captain Jodd. Nay, I forgot, you cannot. Give the copy of the letter to the Lady Irene; the original she can see afterwards if she wills."
So the paper was given to her by Jodd, and she read it aloud, weighing each word carefully.
"Oh, what a dog is this!" she said when it was finished. "Know, Olaf, that of my free will I surrendered the throne to him, yes, and all my private treasure, he swearing upon the Gospels that I should live in peace and honour till my life's end. And now he sends me to you to be blinded and then done to death, for that is what he means. Oh! may God avenge me upon him! May he become a byword and a scorn, and may his
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