2 Chapter 2: The feast at Ali’s
Ali was going first in the street, I was in the middle and my brother was after us. Because of the stuffy heat, unusual clothes, the beard which I kept touching and checking out if it was holding well, because of the inconvenient left shoe and heavy walking-stick, I was feeling myself as if I had gotten into a fog. My head was absolutely empty, I didn’t want to talk and I was glad that I would be playing the deaf- mute during the whole evening. I don’t understand the language anyway, and now no one will prevent me from observing this new, unknown life. We crossed the street, but we didn’t enter through the gates which as always were firmly closed, but we turned behind the corner, and Ali himself unlocked and locked again the little metal gates of the garden.
I was surprised by abundance of unusually beautiful flowers. The scent of the flowers was strong, but it didn’t make me dizzy. Already walking one next to another along a rather wide avenue, we turned into the depth of the garden and went to the lit up house. The windows were wide open. In the big long sitting-room one could see lots of little, low, rounded tables which were moved to the low, wide sofas, laid out along both walls. From the other side of the little tables, there were two low, wide pouffes placed, which looked like big pillows, put crosswise. If one wanted one could sit down on the pouffes in the Eastern style, too, by shoving one’s feet under oneself.
The house was lit up by electricity of which not everybody was aware even in the capitals. Ali was passionately propagating this kind of energy. He had sent home the machines from England and he was trying to connect to this quite powerful network at least the houses of his friends, but even the closest of them were not ready for such an innovation. Only my brother and two more doctors were using the electricity.
While we were still walking along the avenue, young Ali and Nal joined us. She had put on a luxurious reddish oriental robe which I recognized right away. She also had a very splendid burqa which was cast on her shoulders. I had never seen such womanly head cover that was woven with pearls and jewels; her black plaits twisted round with pearls were almost reaching the floor, and her red lips with a smile were telling something to Ali… I already wanted to lift my turban a little, so I could hear the girl’s voice, but the quick Ali’s glance as though commanded me “You are deaf and mute, stroke your beard.”
I was angry within me, but I was trying not to show my irritation as much as I was able to. I was slowly stroking my beard, feeling happy that at least I wasn’t blind. I looked old visually, so I could examine the beauty and admire her without any interference. The girl wasn’t paying any attention to me, but one didn’t have to be a psychologist in order to understand that her entire attention was focussed on my brother.
Now we were standing in the big terrace that was tangled round with the blooming climbers, not known to me. The chandelier was shining as bright as in the day-time – even the pattern of the carpet could be seen clearly, on which there were lots of feet simply buried.
What about the girl? She was of medium height, slender, slim; her miniature, white little hands were holding two red roses with their thin long fingers, which she was often smelling, but it seemed to me that by doing so she wanted to cover her embarrassment. Her big, almond, green eyes didn’t remind me of the eyes of an earthly creature by anything. One could imagine that only angels, geniuses or some
kind of higher creatures could have such eyes; but neither these eyes nor their expression didn’t absolutely go with the apprehension of a woman that is usual in our lives.
Ali offered me to sit down on the soft sofa, while the girl and young Ali sat down on the pouffes in front of me. I kept staring at the face of Nal, which was changing like the wave, chased by the wind. Not I alone was looking at her like this – the eyes of all three men were glued to her, only their expression was so different!
The young Ali was sparkling with his dark eyes, and a devotion, simply adoration was shining in them. I thought for a while that he is ready to die for her without any hesitation at any moment. Both of them were very similar: the same narrow nose with a hardly noticeable little hump, bright red lips and an oblong form of the face, but one could feel that Ali was dark brunette with the temperament of the tiger, that his thought could be biting, his word and hand – injuring.
Nal’s face was so tender and harmonious, it was smelling of such kindness and purity that it even seemed that the prose of this ordinary life with its sadness and suffering were not meant for her, that she wouldn’t be able to utter a bitter word, to cause a pain. She could be only peace, comfort and joy for everybody who would be fortunate to meet her.
Her uncle was looking at her with his piercing black eyes so intently and with such kindness that I was unable to imagine it in him in any way. The depth of his eyes seemed to be bottomless, and a tender stream was flowing from them to Nal; but it seemed to me that deep inside of him there was a hurricane of anxiety, torturing grief and doubts for a successful girl’s fate hiding behind this love flow.
Finally I started examining my brother. He was also looking at Nal intently. His eye-brows – as then, below the tree – again were contracted into a continuous line, and because of the widened pupils, his eyes seemed to be totally black. He was sitting straight; it seemed that all his feelings and thoughts were stretched like a string. He was all covered with his gigantic will, as with an armour, through which no word, nor movement could cut their way, and I was almost physically feeling the ring of that iron will.
The girl was mostly casting looks on my brother. It seemed that in her understanding there wasn’t any place for such thoughts that she was a woman, and that there were men sitting around her. She was expressing her feelings straightforward, easily and with joy like a baby. Several times I caught the look of passionate love, which she cast on my brother. And again, there was only pure love shining in that look without the slightest womanly feeling.
All of a sudden, I was able to understand the big drama of these two hearts, which were being broken by the national, family and religious superstitions…
The older Ali looked at me, and now in his so kind eyes I saw a little old man’s wisdom, as if he wanted to tell me “You see, old fellow, how wonderful life is! How easily the people who love each other should be living, and how painfully the superstitions are separating them. You see, what the religion could turn into, which as though is leading us to God, but in reality it is overflowing the life of the people who love each other with misfortune, suffering and even death.”
All of a sudden, an apprehension of man’s freedom and independence opened in my heart. I could feel the whole power of the religious slavery, hanging over the girl, over both Alis and all of their advanced friends, and first of all – over my brother. I was feeling so sorry for my brother and Nal! I saw how hopeless their fight for their love was. I estimated my brother’s will which hadn’t let a single more lively word slip away, and which was keeping a respectful, chivalrous tone while talking to Nal.
The girl who had been joyful like a child in the beginning became noticeably sad, her surprised and pleading eyes kept glancing at her uncle more and more frequently. The older Ali took her hand and asked her something which I was unable to hear. Because of the sudden girl’s movement, when she quickly pulled her hand out of her uncle’s hand and hid her blushed face in the flowers, I understood that they were talking about the flowers. Ali told her something again, and the girl who was blushed like a guelder rose touched her lips and heart with the flowers and stretched them out to my brother.
“Take them,” Ali told to my brother so clearly that I was able to hear it, too. “The women of our country are presenting the flower to their closest and dearest friend on the day of their majority.”
My brother took the flowers and squeezed the little hand which gave them to him.
The younger Ali jumped on his feet like a tiger. His eyes were simply casting sparks. It seemed that he would fall on my brother and strangle him. The older Ali only cast a glance at him and drew a line in the air with his index finger downwards from top – young Ali fell down to his former place, sighing, as though he had absolutely lost his strength.
The girl turned pale as a ghost. Her eye-brows frowned, and her entire face was reflecting her spiritual suffering, almost physical pain. Her eyes were sadly now at uncle now at young Ali. Ali Mahomet took her hand again, he stroked her head tenderly, took my brother’s hand, joined then and said.
“Today you turn sixteen years old. According to the understanding of the East, you are an old woman already. However, you are still only a child in Europe. From my point of view, you are man already and you have to step into life. That cruel conspiracy which you aunt has started so foolishly will not be taking place. You are perfectly educated, so you will be going to Paris and studying there. When you finish the medical department, you will travel to India with me, to my little estate. As the doctor, you will be of more service to mankind over there than marrying the local fanatic, where the rude religious superstitions would trample your heart. Yours and my friend captain T. will not refuse his chivalrous help, and he will help you to escape from here. Exchange your rings, like the Christians are exchanging their crosses.”
It was strange to me that not hearing a single girl’s word I could clearly hear what Ali was saying.
My brother was wearing our mother’s ring on his little finger. I was totally unable to remember our mother. That was an excellent, ancient ring made with subtlety from gold and blue enamel with the large diamond. Not even taking thought, my brother pulled his ring off and put it on the fourth finger of Nal’s right hand. In her turn, she untied her ring-snake off her belt. It was hanging on a little chain. The snake had mouthed a large, turbid, colourless jewel up. She put the ring on the fourth finger of my brother’s left hand.
I didn’t have time even to think for a while “What an unlovely stone! As ugly as the snake, holding it”, and suddenly I nearly gave a shout out of astonishment. Having been only a piece of glass a moment ago, the jewel began to glitter in all colours of the rainbow. Not the purest, the most faceted diamond had ever shimmered with such long beams. Only the sun light is able to break such beams in the crystal pyramid.
A moan, almost a cry escaped from young Ali. Uncle’s look made him calm down again. He hung his head again.
“This is the stone of life,” older Ali said, “and it comes to life again as soon as a man’s energy comes through it. You, my fellow Nikolaj, - you are in full blossom, and your heart is pure, that’s why the stone is sparkling so blindingly. While you are growing older, the stone will be going out, too, unless your
wisdom and spiritual strength replaces your sinking physical strength. You gave the very dearest that you possessed to my niece – love of your mother, which she had given to you with the ring. Nal gave you the gift of her great-grandfather who was a man of wisdom. He told her to give the ring to that person whom she will be loving so strongly and faithfully that she would be ready to die for him.”
I cast a glance at young Machmed unwittingly. Not a blooming youth was sitting in front of me, but a ghost with the deadly pale face and the eyes which were gone out, not seeing anything. I thought for a while that he was fainted away and that he was sitting only thanks to his balance.
“Today,” Ali Mahomet said, “is the great change in your life, about which I was talking to you a month ago, my Nal, and for which I have been preparing you for five years. Captain T. and two of your loyal servants will lead you to his house. Ali will be going together with you. There you will find European clothes, suitable to yourself and your servants. You will put them on and give your oriental robe and cloaks to Ali. He will come back here, while all of you with captain T. will be going to the railway station. Rely upon captain’s honour and love. He will take you to such city and such place where you will be really safe and where you will be able to wait for me or my messenger. Don’t bother about anything, only value your faithfulness to only law – the law of peace. Be strong and wait for me without any fear and worry. Sooner or later I will come. Rely upon captain T. everywhere and don’t be afraid of staying without him. If he leaves you alone somewhere, it means that it needs to be so, but he will leave you with his loyal friends if such necessity arises. And now let’s go to the garden all together.”
We rose. Young Ali gave me his hand, helping me to go downstairs of the terrace. All of a sudden, everything was lost in the darkness – the plugs had burnt out somewhere. Taking advantage of the darkness, my brother, Nal, Ali and two more figures came out of the garden through the little gates silently. At the gates, Ali whispered something else to the ear of his nephew, and he gave a nod. Some people were running about in the darkness, the servants lit up the candles here and there, and because of it the darkness seemed to be even blacker. In this way, a quarter of an hour passed. It seemed to me that I was seeing Nal with her reddish oriental robe again and the cloak put on her face, and as if Ali Mahomet had put his arms round her shoulders. However, due to all today’s impressions I was unable to grasp anything clearly anymore, so I thought for a while that the beauty was simply appearing to me, whose charm had been engraved into my consciousness so deeply.
In the meanwhile, the light became bright again, it blinked about three times again and then it kept shining peacefully.
“The get-together begins,” Ali Mahomet uttered clearly, and again I was able to understand his words very well. “Don’t forget: you are lame in your left leg, you are deaf and mute. People will be bowing a lot and respectfully to you. Don’t respond to anybody’s bows, only give a little nod to mullah. Don’t take anything from the common table, eat only what I will give you directly. When the supper is over, the time will come for Nal to show up. She will be wrapped up in the luxurious cloak. Everyone’s attention will be focussed on Nal’s stealing which has been arranged with the groom beforehand. My friend will come up to you and take you through the garden’s gates. Show my ring to the servant who will be standing there and come back home along the totally different way. At home you will find your brother’s letter. Change your clothes and hide everything in such a way as it will be written in the letter. You will have to do some work with the mess left at home, because it is necessary that your brother’s messenger who is sleeping now wouldn’t notice anything special in the morning when he is putting the rooms in order,” and Ali hurried away towards the guests who had just entered through the gates.
The host was standing head and shoulders above his guests. He would respond respectfully to the greetings of some of them with a bow, and they would continue their way into the house, while the others would stop close to him and greet him in European way by squeezing his hand. The guests kept
gathering and soon the avenue and veranda were full of many-coloured oriental robes. Talking, laughing, strained waiting of delicious feast, some stories that seemed to be cheerful were creating high spirits. However, having observed more closely, I noticed that the guests were standing in separate little companies. Those who were dressed more freely, not according to all rules, were keeping aloof, while the rest of them kept turning back to look at mullah like musicians at the conductor. Then I started examining everybody even more attentively: perhaps, I will notice another face made up as mine or an artificial beard which I kept stroking with such dignity.
The time was passing unnoticed. An Eastern music was heard from somewhere, and several servants invited the guests to come inside. In the depth of the sitting-room, next to the door to adjacent room, Ali Mahomet was standing with an unseen man who was very tall and well-built. He was dressed in white clothes and turban. His beard was blonde with a golden shade, his big and beautiful eyes were dark green. He was young, about twenty eight thirty years old, and his extraordinary beauty was very striking. He was only a little bit lower in height than Ali, but he had much broader shoulders and was well- proportioned – the real medieval knight. My imagination depicted him dressed in the clothes of Lohengrin at once.
The host was greeting the guests coming into the sitting-room with a low bow. All guests sat down on the sofas and pouffes, still keeping the same breaking up into separate groups. Everybody was leaving his leather galoshes or shoes at the door, while the servants were placing them on shelves. There wasn’t a single woman among the guests. I kept standing, observing how the guests were taking their seats, and I was unable to decide where I could find a shelter myself. I already wanted to go back to the garden when I sensed the look of Ali upon myself. He told something to a boy servant, and he came hurriedly to me. Having bowed respectfully, he invited me to follow him and he took me to the table that was close to the host’s one. There were two middle-aged men with motley oriental robes and coloured turbans already sitting at the table. They had the foot-wear which seemed to be ordinary to me, and on top of their European suits, they had only one silk oriental robe. They bowed to me low and respectfully, but having remembered the words of Ali, I sat down on the place shown to me, not giving a nod to them.
When all guests were sitting, only then Ali and the tall handsome man sat down. The music began to play somewhere closer and louder. At the same time the servants started bringing us hot, evaporating dishes, placing them at once on all tables. The boys delivered china piyalas and silver spoons for each guest.
Only not all guests were putting the rich, evaporating pilaf into their piyalas and eating it with their spoons. Majority were thrusting their hands simply into the common bowl and eating from their cupped hands. This was inspiring such an aversion to me that I was nearly sickened. I wanted to run away, although the never soon before mixed crowd was promising an extraordinary and interesting view of Eastern colours and customs. I didn’t touch the pilaf that was put on our table and I was waiting for the dish, promised by Ali. And indeed, the tall blonde handsome man rose from their table and stretched out a silver piyala with a small golden spoon to me.
It seemed that the honour given to me was very highly estimated according to the Eastern customs, because suddenly all talking stopped, and the exclamations of astonishment rolled along all tables in this silence. According to the guests’ mimics and gestures, they were asking one another who I was. Some of them were casting looks on me very seriously. They were telling something to their neighbours, while they were nodding their heads in agreement. Exactly at this moment, the new dishes were brought in, and their scent distracted everyone’s attention off me.
I stood up before the tall handsome man unwittingly, who was stretching out the piyala to me. He smiled, put the dish that was brought on the table and bowed in Eastern way. Because of that smile
of his, the look of his kind eyes and the purity that was simply blowing from him, I was embraced with such joy as if I had seen an old, loyal friend. I bowed low to him, too. The neighbours from my table were asking me something which I neither heard nor understood, I only saw their moving lips and questioning eyes. I was saved by the boy who showed them his mouth and ears. They only nodded their heads, looked at me sympathetically and started eating the pilaf with relish, thanks God at least not with their hands.
I was surprised when I saw a stewed fruit in my piyala, because I was already quite hungry and I would have eaten with pleasure a much more concrete dish. I looked at Ali Mahomet with disappointment. He met my look as if he had been waited for this disappointment. The same piyala was in his hands, he lifted it as though wanting to clink it with me, and he gave me a tender smile. In order not to look like an impolite and ill-mannered guest, I took the spoon and ate several never seen before pieces of the fruit, floating in juice that was similar to red wine. My thoughts about the more concrete dish vanished at once: the taste and scent of the fruit were wonderful, similar to pineapple, while juice were giving me cheerfulness and cooled me off. I was eating with such pleasure that I even stopped looking round.
In the meanwhile, there was something to observe. Both of my neighbours took off their oriental robes and coats. They were left with only fine silk shirt and wide, black woven band, serving as waist-coats for them. I already noticed the impact of the heat at the other tables as well, especially among the European guests. The Muslims, who began to sweat and who were wiping the sweat off their shining faces with their sleeves, kept eating diligently, bespattering their costly oriental robes time and again, but they didn’t undress. Having grown heavy because of the food and heat, they simply became feeble. The postures were absolutely free already, the talking was loud, there were arguments starting here and there with such gesticulation and such wild spirits that they were more similar to quarrels.
The stewed fruit given to me by the handsome man must have had some magic features: I wasn’t hot anymore, I didn’t want to tear the turban off my head anymore, I was brisk, and my body wasn’t feeling any tiredness, as though there hadn’t been any of today’s troubles. It seemed to me that I could easily cover ten versts on foot. My thoughts were focussed, and I started looking round more attentively.
The guests seemed to be even ruder, and they reminded me even more of the beasts. I was feeling full of self-control and peace, I was surprised by my self-confidence that showed up and I could sense a not yet experienced power of the grown-up man. I remembered my brother, Nal and younger Ali. Somehow I wasn’t worried about the first two at all, but I started anxiously looking with my eyes for younger Ali among the guests. In my memory emerged Nal’s figure with her reddish oriental robe next to older Ali in the garden. I was ransacking every table with my eyes, but I couldn’t find Nal’s cousin over there. By chance my look met the host’s eyes, and I as if was reading in them: “Control yourself and remember my words – when you have to leave this place and what you have to do at home.”
A wave of anxiety ran through me like a gust that makes the flame of the candle flutter, and my absolute self-control came back again.
During that time the dishes on the table were changed many times. The fruit and sweets were already being served. My neighbours were eating relatively little, but they were simply exterminating the melons by pouring some pepper on them. I was afraid of showing my astonishment of such taste more clearly, but I saw that almost everybody was eating them with pepper, too.
The tall, golden-haired handsome man rose from Ali’s table again and gave me the piyala with different kind of fruit now, which seemed to be similar to the rice grain in honey. He shoved a note into my hand imperceptibly together with the piyala, bowed low again and came back to his place. I also wanted to respond with a bow to him, but I couldn’t rise from my place, my legs disobeyed me completely. If I hadn’t had my glued beard which was so firmly contracting my cheeks, then because of the
laughableness that was characteristic to me, I would have roared with laughter at the top of my voice. I unrolled the note. The following words were written in it in English: “First of all, eat that what I have brought to you now. Don’t try to stand up until you have eaten the whole dish. You are not accustomed to our piquant meals, and because of them, as well as because of some wine brands, your legs disobey you. However, thanks to this dish it will be over after some time. Don’t forget that you have to leave by the end of this feast. I myself will bring you to the little gates. As soon as the racket kicks up, stand up and come up to the host’s table immediately. I will give you my hand, and we will go into the garden.”
I didn’t want even to consider those hundreds of mysterious, not comprehensible to me events of today, but I wished very much to be able to control my legs again, so I hurried to eat. The meal’s taste was similar to some blobs of the sweat porridge, which were in the sauce made of honey, wine, vanilla and some other odorous spices. My neighbours had already stopped paying any attention to me for a long time. It seemed to me that they were following the always growing racket and excitement of the guests with an increasing anxiety. I tried moving my legs, I lifted them up slightly as if fixing my oriental robe – hurrah! – my legs were strong and supple again. The racket in the sitting-room was already like the hum in the square of Sunday’s market. Fierce quarrels were boiling here and there behind the tables. The guests were swinging their hands widely and, with the expression that is characteristic to the East, their squealing voices were clamouring some incoherent words. I could hear “Nal” and “Allah”. The noise in the sitting-room kept growing and it was already turning into the roar of the animals. I didn’t have time to grasp anything when I suddenly remembered that it was time already for me to stand up and go to the table of Ali. I wanted to stand up quickly, but my inconvenient left shoe made me come to myself and continue playing the limping old man. I could evaluate my brother’s foresight and intellect! If not that shoe, heavy turban and the beard that was restricting the movements of my lips, I would have already forgotten a hundred times that I was mute, deaf and lame.
Having looked at Ali, I saw that the handsome man had already stood up and he was coming towards me. I crawled out of the table quite quickly, on which I left both piyalas and the spoon. Having noticed my efforts, the golden-haired handsome man came to me in a flash, and the boy ran up to us with the sheet of white, soft paper. He wrapped up both silver piyalas and the spoon in a moment and, having stretched them out to me, he bowed low and he was mumbling something. Seeing that I wasn’t taking the little bundle and that I only was looking at him with surprise, the boy was respectfully poking the dishes into my left hand which was free from the walking-stick.
“Take it,” I heard the voice over me. “Such is the custom. Take it as soon as possible, so that no one could notice that you don’t know the local customs. The boy is bowing to you so zealously, because he thinks that you are an important person who isn’t happy with such poor present on the occasion of majority. Let’s go, it’s time,” he finished the English phrase, holding me by my left hand.
I could hardly go. The inconvenient shoe had made my foot so much sore that I was even hopping. I was afraid that without help of the handsome giant I wouldn’t have managed to go downstairs to the garden, although the little stairs were low, but they were steep.
As soon as we walked several steps down the avenue, the lights were out again. A buzz of joy, joke or indignation could be heard in the sitting-room. Someone’s shadow slipped close to us and threw a light, thick cover on my attendant, which covered me, too. My guardian took me in his hands like a child and suddenly turned into the very depth of the garden. We came across the watchman by the little gates, to whom I showed the ring given to me by Ali Mahomet, and he, not having uttered a single word, let us go to the street. My attendant told him several words, the watchman bowed respectfully and locked the little gates.
We came into the absolutely empty street. Our eyes had already gotten used to the darkness which kept floating the noise from the garden. The stars were shining in the sky. My guardian put me on the ground, took my inconvenient left shoe off, pulled the turban off my head and, looking attentively into my eyes, told me.
“Don’t waste any time. Life of your brother, Nal and yourself now depends very much on your actions. If you fulfil all indications given to you in the letter that was left in your room on the pillow, then everything will be all right. Now forget that you were mute, dumb and lame, but remember during your entire life how you were playing the old man in the Eastern feast. Good-bye. I will visit you tomorrow morning, but today don’t leave your home, don’t go even into the yard, no matter whatever you may hear.”
Having said it all in English again, he squeezed my hand and disappeared in the darkness.
While I was already unlocking the door of my brother’s house, I saw that the lights in Ali’s garden came on again. “It means that the lights will be on at our house, too,” I thought for a moment and I saw a narrow streak of light from behind the door of my brother’s study. I was taken aback because of the mess that I found here when I entered, because I knew my brother’s neatness very well. It seemed that at least several people were changing their clothes here, but I didn’t pay any attention to this external mess. All my thoughts were occupied with my brother’s destiny. Having closed the door firmly, I also locked them up, pulled the heavy portiere on them, put in order its fall on the floor, so that the light wouldn’t pass through the cracks. “First of all,” I thought for a while, “I have to read the letter.” Having made sure that the shutters were closed, the blinds were down and the portiere was firmly drawn, I went into my room. A little lamp close to the sofa was also on in the room, while the windows were firmly covered, and the strong heat was getting unbearable. I wanted to undress, but the thought about the letter as though bewitched me.
I threw off the walking-stick, I took off my top oriental robe and, having come up to the sofa, I saw a big blue envelope on the pillow. The following was written with my brother’s hand: “Testament.” I snatched it, opened it carefully and took a note and a couple of letters from it. On one of them there was written with my brother’s hand: “To Lovushka”, while on another one there was written with unknown, rounded, still childish, womanly handwriting: “To comrade L.N.T.”. First of all I opened the note. It was short, and I read it greedily.
“Lovushka,” my brother was writing, “there’s no time. You will know everything from the big letter. Now don’t delay. You will find a liquid on your table. Clean the make-up off your face and your hands with it. All clothes scattered in the room, including yours, hide in that wardrobe in the cloak-room, which I showed to you today. Hide the bottle with the liquid for make-up removal in the wardrobe, too. When you firmly close the door of the wardrobe, push an absolutely invisible button on the right, which is located upwards on the ninth flower of the wallpaper. A thin wall with the same wallpaper will come down from above and it will hide the wardrobe. Only be sure to inspect everything attentively, so that there wouldn’t be any unhidden items left.”
I remembered in a flash that my attendant had pulled the turban off my head and taken my left shoe off, so I got worried if I hadn’t lost them on my way home, but having looked at the bundle with piyalas given to me by the boy, I could also see the turban with that mutilating shoe next to it. My attendant must have put all of that into my hands, and I took everything and flung it down on the table as soon as I entered the room, not even thinking about it.
I took some cotton wool. First I moistened my hands, and they turned white instantly. I was thinking that I would have to bother with my face and beard for a long time, but similar to milk, smelling
pleasingly liquid removed the whole blackness at once, my beard came off easily, and I could feel better at once, and it wasn’t so hot anymore. I took another one of the oriental robes off, I took my remaining shoe and socks off, I put light slippers on and I started cleaning my brother’s room.
One could still feel a certain system in this mess. All oriental robes were gathered together into one bundle, the other items were also sorted out and tied up into parcels. I only had to take all of that into the cloak-room. Now a thought about my brother’s messenger struck me, too, but I remembered that he was sleeping as a hero, and my brother used to say that even the thunder of the cannons wouldn’t wake him up. And indeed, having gone out into the corridor, I could hear such snoring that I only smiled and calmed down that my light steps would really not disturb his sleep.
Several times I had to come back to my brother’s study for the parcels. Finally I brought all shoes, only the turbans were left. I recognized my brother’s turban from the triangle of emeralds. I saw a case on the toilet table and I already wanted to leave the adornment after taking it out, but I decided to obey fully my brother’s order, so I took all turbans, cases and put them in the wardrobe. At the same time I also took all my clothes off, I picked the beard, walking-stick, piyalas, the unbearable left shoe and I hid everything in the wardrobe. I came back once again and inspected all rooms attentively. I found the case of my brooch, so I brought it to the wardrobe, too.
Again and again I kept inspecting all corners of my brother’s room and finally I decided to press the button that wasn’t so easy to locate in the ninth flower of the wallpaper. There were many ninth flowers counting upwards, but finally I succeeded to find something similar to the button in one of them, which really wasn’t the closest to the wardrobe. I pressed the button, but nothing happened. I had already started getting irritated, I was calling myself a fool when the light rustle above drew my attention and made me lift my eyes up. I almost jumped up from joy: the wall was slowly coming downwards and in a few minutes, always accelerating, it touched the floor softly. “True miracles”, I thought for a while, because if I hadn’t brought everything to the wardrobe with my own hands, I would have never thought that this room could ever look differently.
However, I didn’t have time to reflect on that. Everything that I had seen and experienced today merged into such chaos that I already was unable to answer myself where the reality ended and where my fantasy began. I put out the light in the cloak-room, closed the door and came back to my brother’s study. There were several papers and some rests of the letters and newspapers lashing around on the floor. I picked everything up carefully, including the blobs of dirty cotton wool from my room. I cast everything into the fireside and set fire.
Now I was able to calm down. I put out the light and came into the sitting-room. I was thirsty, but the desire to read my brother’s letter overcame the physical thirst. I read the note once again, made sure that I had done everything precisely and burnt it with the match.
I heard a noise in the street, as though somebody was hollowly firing several times, then everything settled down again.
I lay down and started reading my brother’s letter. The further I was reading it the more surprised I became – my brother’s picture emerged before my eyes in an absolutely different way than my imagination had gotten used to see him.
Many years passed since that night. Not only I became old during that time, not only my brother and many other participants of Nal’s escape are gone, but the whole life had changed around me; one, two, three was swept by, thousands of meetings and impressions ran by, but the letter from my
brother Nikolaj is still standing before my eyes the same as I was able to grasp it with my entire consciousness on that faraway, unforgettable night. Here it is, that letter:
You will be reading this letter when the hour of my great test is striking. But this hour will also be the hour of your destiny; you will have to test and prove with your actions your loyalty and devotion to your brother-father, like you used to call me in exceptional moments of life.
Now I’m addressing you like my brother-son. Concentrate your whole courage and show your entire honour and fearlessness, which I was trying to train in you.
My life has split in two: I, Christian, officer of Russian army fell in love with a Muslim. I understand perfectly well that this love isn’t fated to end happily. The net of religious, racial and class superstitions can build such a wall that the will of the whole regiment, not only the will of one man, may be destroyed after striking against the wall.
How did I meet the one whom I love? How did I become acquainted with her? You will find out everything if the end of the story isn’t sad, to be precise, if the story is created at all and not the deadly end. Now I will tell you only the main point, that what you will have to do for me if you want to protect my life and happiness.”
There were several missed lines in this place and the follow-up was already written with another, fresher ink and in a more nervous handwriting.
_“You already know Ali Mahomet and younger Ali. You have seen Nal. You will have to play the guest in the feast and… there’s a local custom when the groom has to steal the bride, and at that moment when that happens, you will be suspected of stealing her. If you don’t want to betray me, if you perform your role well, which older Ali and his friend will explain to you, then I and Nal might be lucky to escape the horror and threats of persecution of the religious fanatics…_
Pay a visit to colonel N. and tell him that on occasion I left for hunting earlier and that as usual I will be waiting for him at our friend forester; if he doesn’t find me there, it means that I left and expect to meet him at trader D. and to bring back a considerable catch with myself; tell him to bring along one more gun and more bullets. Go to him at eight in the morning, tell him everything as precisely as possible and don’t be late.
Later be sure to rely absolutely in everything upon Ali Mahomet. I’m pressing you to my heart. Don’t think about the danger threatening me, but think only if you want to become the protection or maybe the salvation for me and Nal freely, easily and at your own will.
Good-bye. Either we will meet each other with joy and happiness again or we will not meet each other at all. Always be brave, fair and honourable.
Your brother N.”
I looked at the clock. It was almost four in the morning. I heard the noise in the street again, as though a flicking of whips, it seemed to me that somebody was knocking on our gates, too, but I remembered the instructions of my night attendant on my way home, so I put out the light and I was listening attentively. Several carts drove by in the street at high speed, some voices began to scream, several shots rang out again, some songs would be sung and then they stopped at once.
It seemed that some kind of a scandal was taking place in the street. I wanted to cast a glance at this at least through the crack, but I didn’t dare to, so that I wouldn’t arouse any suspicion on my brother’s house.
I didn’t want to sleep at all, I also didn’t feel any tiredness. I put on the light again, read my brother’s letter once again, kissed it and took another one.
“My friend and brother,” the letter started with these words, I’m only a weak woman. You hardly know me, and as you can see, there’s a danger breaking into your life because of the unfamiliar woman.
My brother, my uncle Ali Mahomet who has brought me up is the most wonderful man whom life could ever create. If you want to help me to escape the marriage with a rude, terrible man who is fanatic and mullah’s friend, then I’m sure that my uncle will always be thankful to you for doing so, and in his turn, he will be protecting you from all dangers threatening you.
What can I say to you, my friend and brother? I can only ask you to help me, not being able to promise anything in return for doing so. We, Eastern women, we love only once if life gives us a chance to. You are brother, brother-son of that man whom I love. Let my love be love of sister-mother for you. I bow you low and I kiss you. Let the wonderful picture of your brother-father always remain in your heart, and at the same time also loving both you and him
There was the noise in the street again. It seemed that several pairs of feet ran close by the house, the carts were rattling again. I put out the light and I was listening attentively again. This time again, as though a little bit further already, the shots rang out, one heavier cart drove by rumbling, and everything settled down again. I struck the match and looked at the clock. It was half past five already, hence it was absolute light outside, but I still didn’t dare to open the windows.
I put on the light in my brother’s room, took the letters and the envelope, I read them once again and, having cast them into the fireside, I set them on fire.
How peculiarly they were burning! Having blazed up suddenly, then they were almost out. My brother’s letter stood apart and curled up, and I was able to read the following word clearly: “Brother- father.” Then all of them blazed up brightly again, and in Nal’s letter the rounded letters “Nal” were revealed. They were as though on the white spot, surrounded by the fire.
Having blazed up brightly once again, the letters turned into red things scattered about and were out, so that nobody could see them again in this world with these united signs of love, hope, fear, grief and loyalty.
I don’t know if I was sitting in front of the fireside for a long time. I was unable to grasp everything that had happened during the day, and this fabulous, fantastic night shook my nerves loose once and for all. I was trying, but I was unable to focus my thoughts in any possible way. Such burden fell on my heart, which I hadn’t ever experienced in my life. “My brother-father,” – I was repeating in my thoughts in hundreds of the softest nuances, and my tears themselves were flowing in streams from my eyes. It seemed to me that I had buried everything what was the best in this world and, having come back from the cemetery, I started the life of lonesome, lost and not needed by anyone creature. I didn’t feel any fear in my heart for at least a moment, it seemed absolutely natural and simple for me to sacrifice my life for my brother. But how could I protect him? How could I help him by being such unexperienced and incapable of anything myself? I was unable to imagine that in any possible way.
The time was slipping by, while I was still sitting without any thoughts, decisions, only with a huge pain in my heart, and I was unable to stop the streamlet of tears from my eyes in any possible way. The cock had its crowing somewhere near. I gave a start with fright and looked at the clock. It was fifteen minutes to seven. I made up my mind: it was time.
I needed exactly that much time in order to dress myself and visit colonel N. with my brother’s assignment. I went to my room, drew the portiere and opened the shutters. It was quiet in the street.
When I was going to the bathroom, I saw the messenger who was already setting the samovar. I told him that he didn’t have to hurry with the tea, because my brother had left for hunting late in the evening, and that I was going to report about that to colonel N.
It seemed that my brother had used to leave for hunting unexpectedly, because the messenger wasn’t even surprised. He volunteered to run to colonel himself, but I answered him that I wanted to go for a walk at the same time. Then he explained the nearest way through the gardens to me, and in a quarter of an hour I was already dashing out of our garden to the adjacent street. I was hurrying. It was hot. While going through the holiday market, I was working my way through the lively and dense crowd of people, and I was trying not to think about anything, so I could concentrate on the main and most important moment – the assignment of my brother; even my passion to observe things had fallen into a doze in me.
“Hello!” suddenly I heard a voice behind my back. “Well, are you interested in the market? I have already been running after you for five minutes and I could hardly catch up with you. You must have picked something out and wanted to buy it?”
Colonel N. was standing in front of me, smiling joyfully.
“Why, I’m in a hurry to visit you,” I became happy. “My brother asked me to tell you that he didn’t wait till you came and he left for hunting on occasion.”
And I named everything what I had been entrusted to in detail – about the meeting, gun and bullets.
“Very well!” colonel gave a shout merrily. “My nephew just arrived to see me. He’s a passionate hunter, so he’s asking me – simply begging me – to take him with me. If I went with your brother, then there wouldn’t be enough place for him, and now I can take him. However, I’m not leaving today, but tomorrow at dawn.
While talking, we crossed the whole market square. Exactly on this end of the square, next to the ruins of the old mosque, a considerable crowd of locals had gathered. I noticed several Muslim monks
among them. They were dressed in yellow oriental robes and had pointed dervish caps with fox brushes on their heads.
“Well, it seems that these yellow monks got very angry with Ali Mahomet,” colonel told me.
“Why?” I asked him. “What did Ali Mahomet do to them?”
“Why, haven’t you heard that they are preparing a massacre for him? And this night, these yellow dervishes undoubtedly have played dirty tricks on Ali themselves. Haven’t you heard anything?” colonel kept asking me.
I flinched inside, but I pulled my shoulders calmly and answered him.
“What I could hear if you are the only person whom I know here and I’m seeing you only now, while my brother left yesterday in the evening.”
Colonel gave a nod to this and told me that this night at Ali Mahomet’s place there should have been the stealing of the bride, Ali’s niece, that this was the part of the ceremonies discussed beforehand. Usually the groom accompanied by the company of his friends breaks into the house with gunshots, noise and, staging the stealing of the bride in every possible way, he seizes the bride, and everybody dashes out with all their might, always firing back in the air, although actually the bride is found in the place agreed beforehand, and she is brought there by the old women.
I remembered the gunshots that I was hearing in the night, the noise caused by the carts and I didn’t understand whom they had taken away instead of Nal. Seeing that I was silent, colonel decided that I wasn’t interested in his story.
“Of course, you, a man from capital, don’t care about our business, but when you are living here, when you see the darkness in which the locals are steeped, clenched in mullah’s fist, then willy-nilly you start feeling for that wonderful, obedient nation and you are accepting to your heart with passion the fight against religious fanaticism of such great man like Ali Mahomet. This is an example of man who is devoted to his nation.”
Immediately I made colonel believe that I was very interested in his story and that the cause of my absent-mindedness was such colourful, surrounding from all sides Eastern beauty that I hadn’t seen up till then.
“Well, so I’m telling you that they,” he gave a nod with his head towards the yellow robes, “have played the most horrible story to poor Ali. They stole his niece, hid her somewhere and now they are accusing him of organizing her escape with help of some old, limping trader whom nobody knows here. In short, the fact is that this night the groom and his companions stole Nal from the feast, and when they came hurrying home they found only the reddish robe of the bride in the cart, as well as her luxurious burqa and a couple of her miniature shoes, while the trail of the bride herself had already been lost. Having drawn down such disgrace upon himself, the groom came running back to Ali’s house. The whole house had already fallen deeply asleep. As soon as they woke Ali up, they sent somebody to the women’s side to ask the old women to come. When the old women were told that the bride escaped, Nal’s aunt nearly scratched the groom’s eyes out. Ali himself had to suppress the old witch. Of course, these fanatics hid the girl in a safe place where no one would find her, so that they could insult Ali and accuse him of Nal’s escape and announce the massacre for him. It is very well that your brother left yesterday in the evening. Everyone whose relations with Ali were great may be in danger, because the massacre is the best pretext to kill any unwelcome persons and to pay off any personal scores.”
I was going close to colonel in silence, immersed in my joyless thoughts about my brother, Nal, both Alis and the disasters menacing to all of us. Only now I was able to understand how great the danger was. I remembered the deadly pallor of younger Ali several times, as well as his suffering of jealousy and seizure of his anger, which he managed to overcome. Which turn the youth will take? Has really no one seen where the limping old man disappeared from the feast?
We came to colonel’s house; he invited me very heartily to drop in, but I refused this, complaining of a headache, and I hurried back home.