3 Chapter 3 : Lord Benedict and a journey to Ali’s house in the country
I clearly remembered that the handsome giant had promised to visit me in the day-time. Having come home, first I saw the messenger who was talking to some melon seller by the gates. Now it already seemed everything to be suspicious to me. While passing by, I cast a glance at the melons and the seller, then I went to the garden in silence.
I sat down under the tree where I and my brother, we used to drink tea in most cases. The messenger shut the gates down and came running after me with two melons. Having put them down on the table, he brought the samovar, some bread, butter, cheese and then he stopped, waiting patiently. One could see from his entire behaviour that he wanted to tell me something.
“Pour me some tea,” I told him. “It seems that you bought great melons.”
“Yes, indeed,” he answered to me. “Have you heard that there was a scandal at our neighbour? Windows were broken in the night, there were fights and gunshots.”
“How could I hear it? I’m not sleeping as soundly as you are, and still, I didn’t hear anything,” I contradicted him.
“Yes, of course. I didn’t hear it myself. The seller just told me about it and he kept asking me where my master was, whether he spent the night at home. I told him that he had left for hunting yesterday. He still kept asking me when he had left and where. So I told him that he had left at five as always, to Ibrahim.”
There came a rather strong knock at the front door. The messenger hurried to the gates close to the front door. I followed him and thought for a while that I should take the pistol. The gates opened, and I recognized my yesterday’s guardian at once.
“Forgive my rather strong knocking and that, apparently, I frightened you, but nobody opened the gates after my two bells, so I had to knock,” he was speaking pure Russian, smiling charmingly.
The guest’s beauty was striking me even more in the bright light of the morning: his regular features, irreproachable teeth, small ears and big, almond, emerald green eyes were fascinating me. My look which was full of admiration simply stuck to this so charming, so manly beauty that was youthfully tender at the same time. I invited my guest to have breakfast together. He smiled and told me.
“My morning has already passed long time ago. We, Eastern people, are used to get up early. I have even forgotten when I had my breakfast, but if you permit, I will sit down at your table and eat a little piece of the melon with pleasure. The custom of our native land says that one isn’t eating only in the house of one’s enemy, but I am your loyal friend.”
“Oh!” I gave a shout. “I was always thinking that this was the custom of old Italy, but now I will know that this is also characteristic to the Eastern belief.”
“Well, I am Italian and my homeland is Florence. Don’t think that all Italians are brunettes of dark nature. It seemed to the women in Venice that it was even indecent to be dark-haired and they used to have their hair dyed in golden colour, although, of course, they used to take not a few pains over it,” he was talking, smiling. “But the colour of my hair is natural, and I don’t have any trouble because of it.”
“Yes, it is easy for you when you are so handsome, so proportionally and with such harmony built – you can even not care about your large stature which becomes surprising only when a normal person shows up next to you and he turns into a dwarf,” I was talking, while giving him the plate, knife and fork for the melon. “Forgive me for being so rude and for not taking my eyes off you. I don’t have enough strength to look into the eyes of Ali Mahomet, because they are piercing me through, and his slender figure is stunning because of its height. Although you and Ali are almost of the same height, you aren’t only oppressing me, but also you are simply attracting me to you like a magnet. Oh, if I could be with you forever and work for some goal!” these words slipped out of me in such an exalted and childlike way.
He laughed merrily and asked me for permission to eat the melon without any knife and fork.
Only now I saw, or I grasped to be precise, that my guest was wearing a simple, European, sand-coloured suit. The expression of my face must have betrayed my entire astonishment, because he blinked at me cheerfully and told me.
“Don’t give yourself away by any chance that you had ever seen me wearing other clothes. You also, having put the turban with the snake on your head, were limping, deaf and mute, right? Couldn’t I, just like you, change my clothes only for the feast?”
I burst out laughing. Although one could easily mistake my guest for English, but… having seem him once with the turban and oriental robe on, I was unable to refuse my belief that he wasn’t a European anymore.
As though having guessed my thoughts, my guest said.
“I can assure you that I’m really Florentian, although I have been living in the East for a long time.”
I burst out laughing again. I could clearly see my guest’s wish to make fun of me! This nicely looking man could be twenty six or seven years old at most, and only “over the full measure” like people are saying.
“So how old were you when you left Florence, if you’ve been living in the East for so long?” I asked my guest. “You are a little older than me, although your appearance, in spite of your youth, wins one’s respect. You looked much older to me yesterday, but now your European suit and your haircut revealed your age.”
“Yes,” my guest answered to me, looking at me with his eyes full of humour, “your European suit and haircut finally revealed your age, too.”
I was rocking with laughter so much that even my brother’s dog started barking.
My guest stopped eating the melon, he washed his hands in the stream of the fountain and, still smiling, he offered me to come inside for a short, intimate conversation. I finished drinking my tea and took my guest to my brother’s room.
He ran his eyes over all corners quickly and, having pointed his hand to the ashes in the fireside, he told me.
“Not good. Why your servant is cleaning so carelessly? There are burnt shreds of the letter left in the fireside.”
I took a newspaper from the table, tucked it under the letter which wasn’t burnt till the end and set it on fire diligently.
“I see that you did everything very carefully,” he continued, looking round in the room. “By the way, have you taken the decorations out of the turbans?”
“No. It wasn’t mentioned in my brother’s letter. I left them in the turbans and hid them in the wardrobe, to be precise, I buried them, because I won’t be able to lift the wall up,” I smiled to my guest.
“I can help you easily,” he contradicted.
The messenger came in and asked for permission to go to the market. I gave him some money for dinner and told him to buy the most excellent fruit. When he left, I locked the door from the yard’s side, I put the key in my pocket, and we turned towards my brother’s cloak-room.
“These doors were left unlocked like this?” my guest reproached me. “And if the messenger had had a look out of curiosity?”
He nodded his head, and I saw my absent-mindedness again.
I put on the light; my guest bent down and showed me one more hardly noticeable button in the fourth flower. It was in the same row of the wallpaper where I had found the ninth flower upwards. He pushed the button, straightened himself and was waiting calmly.
As it had happened to me when I pushed the button, only after several minutes a light rustle was heard, and a crack showed up between the floor and the wall; the wall kept rising, always accelerating and disappeared in the ceiling, as though it had never been here.
I opened the door of the wardrobe and took the turbans out, which were cast on the bottom with disrespect. The guest took both brooches out skilfully, found the cases himself quickly, put the decorations in them and put them into his pocket. Then he found the bottle with the liquid, which I had put there and put it into his pocket, too.
“Haven’t you taken the things out of your brother’s dressing-table?”
“No,” I answered him, “It wasn’t indicated in the letter, so I didn’t even have a look.”
“We better take a look if there isn’t left anything valuable that could come in handy to your brother or yourself later on.”
We came back to my brother’s room, having a chat. The whirls of thoughts were swirling in my head: why do we have to look for the valuable things? Why should something come in handy to us “later on”? Isn’t my brother coming back here? All these questions were burning my brains, but I couldn’t find an answer to any of them.
It was strange that a total stranger was rummaging my brother’s drawers with me, and I firmly believed in his honour and goodwill, not doubting at all that he was doing exactly what was necessary to do at that time.
The guest took several bottles more out of my brother’s drawers, which we shared in our pockets. The guest found a plain silver case among different boxes which we didn’t even looked at. There was a peacock engraved on its coloured enamel. The stretched out train of the peacock was decorated with jewels. This was a jewelry masterpiece. There was a tiny golden key next to the case, which was hanging on a thin golden chain.
“Being in a hurry, your brother has forgotten this thing which he received as a present and which he valued very much. Take it, and if life is favourable to all of us, some day you will give it to your brother yourself,” my wonderful guest was talking to me.
While giving me the case and the key, he touched my hands with both his hands tenderly and amiably. There was such love shining in his eyes that my irritated imagination and excited heart was overflown with peace and belief that everything would end well, that I wasn’t alone, that there was a friend with me.
Could I think back then how much pain I would still have to suffer, how much misfortune would fall on me, what mature and tempered man I would become in three years when finally I would meet my brother, and both of our lives would really be going on well.
Having taken a good look, I saw that it really wasn’t the case, but a note-book with a lock. I hid it in the side pocket of my jacket. We picked out this and that more, what seemed to be important to my guest, we locked the drawers, took everything what we had taken out of them into the wardrobe of the cloak-room and closed it firmly; then I pressed the button in the ninth flower again. The wall came down quickly, we locked the cloak-room, I put the key in my pocket, and we came back to the garden again.
Here my guest explained to me that I should introduce him to everyone as my friend from Petersburg and that I should tell the same to the messenger. Then he handed me Ali’s invitation to come to his country house today where they both, he and his nephew had left early in the morning. The guest didn’t mention the night’s events with a single word, and I was feeling shy for some reason and I didn’t make bold to interrogate him.
I became so happy that I would still be able to stay with my new friend, so I agreed to come to Ali’s at once and willingly. We kept waiting for the messenger in the garden, and my guest’s charm was attracting me to him more and more. Grief in my heart and thoughts about my brother were clearing away and stayed calm when I was close to him. The messenger came back in an hour and a half. I told him at once that I would be going to the country with my friend from Petersburg. My friend himself also added that we might be not coming back till morning and that he wouldn’t care about us. The messenger gave a smile roguishly and answered as always.
“You can be sure.”
We came out to the silent street through the little gates of the garden. The street was buried in verdure and dust. Then we turned into a blind alley that leant on a big shady garden. I was following my new friend, and all of a sudden it became strange to me that it was almost twenty-four hours since I knew this man, I experienced so much with him and I didn’t even know his name.
“Listen, friend, you told me to recommend you as a close friend from Petersburg and I don’t even know how to introduce you to others or how to call you myself.”
He smiled, took my arm – I think that it would have been more convenient for him to put his hand on my shoulder, so small I was next to him – and told me silently in English.
“It doesn’t mean anything. Your acquaintances will think that I’m really an English lord, but since they haven’t seen a lord in their lives, so it will be very easy for me to play him. By the way, I even have an eye-glass which I can use quite well.”
He put the eye-glass into his left eye, pressed his lips together somehow comically, separated his short blond beard into two parts, and… I burst out laughing, because he became so puffed-up, haughty, and his elegant, intelligent face now seemed inane and stupid.
“You see how funny it is,” he uttered in a wheeze through his teeth, “I can play the puffed-up blockhead none the worth than you – the limping old man. Among the strangers I am the lord Benedict, but you can call me Florentian, like everyone is doing.”
As soon as we stepped into the garden we met a couple of my brother’s friends who were officers. It turns out that they were coming to visit us and they became very disappointed when they found out that my brother had left for hunting. I introduced them to my friend from Petersburg, the English lord Benedict. The lord was examining the poor clumsy officers with pride, from the height of his gigantic stature. He was murmuring through his teeth to the questions asked: “I don’t understand”, several times he dropped and quickly snatched the eye-glass with his eye-brow. By doing so, he finished the officers completely off, who had never seen the living lord with the eye-glass and who were staring at him with their eyes opened wide. Finally, he spoke in a patter that the horses were waiting for us, and that I should tell them that I was going to the country to visit his uncle, also an Englishman.
We said good-bye to each other. I still kept suppressing the laughter that was suffocating me, but when I heard their resentment which they cast after us: “He is an English face!” – I couldn’t bear anymore, I was rocking with laughter, and the thunderous, deep voices accompanied me behind our backs.
Lord Benedict, like a real Englishman, didn’t even gave a wink, and because of that I wanted to laugh even more.
We crossed the park in silence. There wasn’t a single person, a total silence was reigning which was being disturbed only by the babble of the fountain and the chirring of the grasshoppers.
A perfect light carriage was waiting for us by the gates of the garden, to which the real English horses were harnessed in English style. They were unable to remain still, and the old coachman had quite a trouble to hold them. He was wearing a tail-coat, spats and bright brown shoes, he was holding an English whip in his hand and he looked exactly as the one whom I had seen in the illustrations of the fashionable magazines.
I cast a glance at the lord in astonishment, he elegantly gave a little nod to me and offered me to be the first who gets into the carriage. I pulled my shoulders, got into the carriage, he quickly made himself comfortable next to me, he told something to the coachman, which I didn’t understand, and we dashed off.
We left the town quite quickly. I hadn’t seen its environs up to now. The vineyards, gardens of fruit-trees, fields of water-melons and melons were extending from both sides of the road. The people of different age with turbans kept riding on backs of their donkeys in front of us. Often there were even two riders sitting on one donkey. We also used to meet the women who had wound black nettings and cloaks round their heads. Sometimes two of them were sitting on one donkey, too.
Everything was buried in dust; the sun was glaring, the heat was burning, and it seemed that there would be no end to this rich and fertile land.
We were riding about an hour like this. Finally, we turned to the left and after a quarter of an hour we got into the steppe.
The view changed at once, as if we had gotten into a totally different land. The luxuriant, fertile verdure was left behind us, and in front of us, the wilderness of the steppe with burnt grass was extending as far as our eyes could take it in.
I was lulled by the rhythmical running of the horses, soft rocking of the carriage-springs and flickering of the heated air. I didn’t even noticed how I fell into a light slumber.
“We’ll be there soon,” my attendant began to speak in Russian.
I awoke suddenly and… I was stupefied. My night guardian was sitting in front of me, wearing a white turban and white clothes.
“When did you have time to change your clothes?” I gave a shout, being almost irritated.
He laughed merrily, lifted the front seat that was upholstered with velvet, and I saw a box in which one more oriental robe and a turban already rolled up were lying.
“I changed my clothes as it is required by the Eastern politeness,” – my attendant answered me, “because if we arrive dressed in suits, then Ali will have to give to each of us an oriental robe. I think that you aren’t inclined to wait until somebody will give you something, and this is your brother’s oriental robe.”
“Not only I want any Eastern presents, but after the last night’s masquerade and miracles, I think that I lost any wish to dress myself in Eastern style forever,” I snapped out not at all politely and quite sharply.”
“Poor boy,” Florentian told me and stroked my shoulder tenderly. “You see, my friend Lovushka, sometimes man is destined to mature at once; and almost instantly after his youth he must become a mature man. Be strong! Take a good look at your heart: whose picture is living in it? Be loyal to your brother-father, as he was loyal to you, his brother-son, during his entire life.”
His words touched my most sensitive wound-attachment and heartache. I could feel the nagging sorrow of separation with my brother so strongly again that I was unable to hold back my tears and I was simply choking with my grief.
“I made a resolution to help my brother, so why am I thinking only about myself? I must go till the end. I started the masquerade, - so it must go on. My brother himself wanted me to change my clothes in Eastern style. So be it!”
Having swallowed my tears, I took the turban out, put it on my head and then I put the motley oriental robe on my student uniform.
The house and the garden could already be seen in the distance. The vineyard started in both sides of the road, and bunches of grapes in it were already turning yellow and red, ripening in the sun.
“Now your guessing will not be tormenting you for a long time anymore,” – Florentian uttered. “Ali will tell and explain you everything, my friend, and you will understand yourself how serious and dangerous the situation is.”
I nodded my head in silence. It seemed to me that I already understood that quite enough. I was feeling such heaviness in my heart, as though by leaving the town I had closed an easy and joyful page of my life, and a new stage of storm and danger would have waited for me in the future.
We drove in through the gates and drove up to the house along the long avenue of high poplars. As soon as the carriage stopped, and we entered rather spacious hall, Ali Mahomet came hurriedly to meet us with his quick and light step. Wearing a white turban and linen clothes which were buttoned up under his neck and which were falling to the ground in wide pleats, he didn’t seemed to be so slender and seemed to be much younger to me. His dark face was smiling, while his burning eyes were looking at me with a paternal kindness. He was stretching both of his hands towards me from the distance already. Having surrendered to the first impression, being exhausted with the anxiety which was tormenting me during all that time, I dashed at him, as if I was only ten and not twenty years old.
Having forgotten that one should be strong and hide one’s feelings while being in front of a little familiar person, I pressed myself to him with a childish confidence. Any formalities were gone, my heart was pressed to his heart, and I could feel with all my essence that I was at my friend’s home, that I had one more friend from now on and that I would always be quite at home here.
Ali put his arms round me, pressed me to himself and told me amiably.
“Let my home bring you peace and help. Step into my house not like a guest, but like my son, brother and friend.”
As soon as he told these words to me, he kissed my forehead, embraced me once again and turned me towards young Ali who was standing behind my back.
I remembered this man’s suffering when Nal gave her flowers and ring to my brother. Could I expect something else besides hatred from him when he was so envious of his cousin to the European?
But young Ali, like his uncle, stretched out both of his hands towards me by greeting me. His eyes were looking at me boldly and respectfully, and I could see in them nothing else but friendliness.
“Let’s go my brother, I will take you to your room. There’s a shower, clean clothes, so you can change your clothes if you want to. Forgive me, but we don’t have any European clothes here. I prepared some light Indian clothes for you. If you want you can stay with your uniform. The servant will clean it, while you are taking a bath.”
Young Ali took me along the whole pretty big house and showed me an excellent room which had windows to the garden and parterre.
“The gong will ring out in twenty minutes, and I will drop in at you. The bathroom and the shower are behind this door,” he added.
As soon as Ali was gone, I threw off my student uniform which I was so proud of with pleasure, I opened the door of the bathroom and, having noticed that the bath was full of warm water, I dashed to splash about with joy. I also wanted to refresh myself with the shower. I didn’t have time yet to dry myself well, and the servant was already knocking on the door. He brought me a refreshing drink which I drank off and was feeling like a camel in the desert: I didn’t even know I was thirsty until I had the drink.
I was trying to make the servant talk in every language that I knew, but he didn’t understand anything, he was only shaking his head in the negative and throwing up his arms sadly. All of a sudden he became quiet, he started nodding his head while mumbling something, he ran to the wardrobe and brought me the clothes as white as snow – he probably thought that I was asking him exactly about that. I wanted to stay with my uniform, but the servant was so glad, he was so happy by having understood what I needed, that I didn’t want to upset him. I laughed joyfully, patted his shoulder and told him.
“Yes, yes, you have guessed it.”
He responded to my laugh with even more joyous nodding of his head and repeated as though he wanted to remember it.
“Yes, yes, you have guessed it.”
He was uttering the words in such a funny manner that I was shouting with laughter like an urchin, and suddenly I heard the gong.
“My God!” I gave a shout, as if the servant was able to understand me. “But I will be late!”
But he understood my confusion very well. He quickly gave me white silk briefs, long shirt, white silk robe and another white linen piece of clothing similar to the one that Ali was wearing.
When I started putting my clothes on, young Ali knocked on the door. I asked him to come in.
“Are you ready, my brother?” he asked. “I thought that your short-haired head may be burnt by our sun, so I brought you a turban.”
“But I don’t know how to put it on,” I answered him.
“Just a moment. Only sit down – I will roll the turban up for you.”
And indeed, he wound my head round with the turban faster than my brother did. I was feeling myself easily and comfortably. I put the fabric shoes without heels on my bare feet, and we hurried to have our dinner.
We went out to the garden, and behind the huge horse-chestnut in the shade I saw a rounded table. Older Ali and Florentian were already sitting behind the table. I asked them pardon for being late, but the host asked me to sit down next to him and, having smiled pleasingly, he explained to me affectionately.
“When we are living in the country, we aren’t observing etiquette so strictly. If you ever don’t want to, you are allowed not to show up at the table at all. Feel absolutely free and behave yourself as plainly, easily and merrily as you can. I will be glad if you stay here for a while. Get some rest and concentrate your forces before your subsequent actions, but if life decides differently, then take all love and help from this home and remember me, your eternally loyal friend.”
I thanked him, sat down in the place shown to me and looked at Florentian. He had also changed his clothes and was wearing white Indian garments. Once again I was stunned by his blooming beauty and youth which were not obscured by any little wrinkle of grief or anxiety, and his entire essence was as though spreading happiness to life itself.
He also looked at me, smiled, suddenly pressed his lips together, gave his left eyebrow and eyelid a little lift, and I could see the naïve face of lord Benedict again. I burst out laughing like a child, both Alis gave a laugh, too.
The table was laid excellently, but there wasn’t any luxury. The dishes were European, but neither meat nor fish nor wine couldn’t be seen. I was hungry and with relish I was eating the soup and the vegetables with the most delicious toasts, which were prepared somehow specially. I also didn’t forget the most wonderful fruit. I was so engaged in eating, I was taking such a rest from all my experiences that I almost wasn’t looking at my neighbours of the table.
A refreshing drink was served in pyialas, but it didn’t remind me by anything of that one which Florentian had brought me during the feast. The dinner passed without any special talking. The older men were consulting about something in a language that was unknown to me, while younger Ali was explaining to me the names of the flowers which were put in the china vase on the table. I hadn’t seen many of them, I had seen some of them in the pictures, but all of them were fascinating me. Ali promised me to show his uncle’s greenhouse after dinner, where the most exotic, rarest and special flowers were growing.
Although I wasn’t looking round, I noticed anyway that younger Ali was eating everything bit by bit, but little, as though only out of politeness, so that I wouldn’t be distinguished for my appetite,
however, no matter how many times I was glancing at older Ali, I could see only fruit, honey and something similar to milk in his hands.
The dinner was over unnoticed. The change that had happened to young Ali was stunning me from the beginning, now it was striking me even more. His pure, careless youth was gone. It seemed that he was suffering so deeply that his psyche had jumped into the next level. Unawares, I was comparing our destinies and I thought for a while that I had crossed the threshold of my quiet childhood, too. The door to it had closed. Another life started…
Since that moment when Ali Mahomet embraced me, I always wanted to ask him about my brother, but my words were always as if frozen to my tongue and I was unable to utter them in any way. Now the sharp pain of yearning pierced my heart again and I looked at the host with a pleading look. Ali stood up, as though he had heard my silent question. We followed his example and thanked him for the dinner. He squeezed everybody’s hand and, having held mine a little bit longer, told me.
“My friend, would you like to walk to the lake with me? It is not far off, it is by the end of the park.”
I became glad that finally I had a chance to have a talk with Ali Mahomet. We moved into the depth of the garden. For a while I could hear the steps of Florentian and younger Ali after us, but then we turned into the dense avenue of plane-trees and we were covered with silence that was disturbed only by birds and grasshoppers. I couldn’t see any flowers in this part of the park, the trees here were branchy, their trunks were of unseen thickness, their leaves and blossom had unusual colours. Two groups of the trees stood up in a special way: black maples and reddish magnolias. Wonderful, big, bright reddish blossom was covering the foliage so densely that the trees looked like gigantic reddish eggs. A strong, but soft aroma was spreading from them. I stopped unwittingly, filled up my lungs with odorous air and, having forgotten all my terrible thoughts, I gave a shout.
“Oh, what a brilliant, what a wonderful life is!”
“Yes, my boy,” Ali assented to me in a low voice. “Pay your attention to these two groups of the trees that are growing close one to another. Black maples and reddish magnolias close to them, - and although being so different, all of them are growing in harmony one close to another, not disturbing the harmony of the symphony of the entire universe. Man’s entire life is the chain of black and reddish pearls. It is the real trouble for that person who cannot carry this chain of his life quietly, strongly and faithfully. There are no people whose chain, made of their ordinary, grey days, would have only reddish pearls. Both colours are changing in every chain, and people are stringing them on the string of their spiritual strength by carrying everything within themselves. You are not a boy anymore. The time has come for you to open your honour, fortitude and loyalty within yourself.
We kept walking. We could see the lake already. We turned to the avenue of high cedars again and went to the arbour made of the drooped down branches of the elm. It was shady here, and the lake was breathing of cool.
It seemed that nobody was disturbing the calm of my life, but Ali’s words aroused the storm in me. My thoughts were swarming; I was feeling that now I would hear something fatal, but I was unable to concentrate myself in any way.
“I saved two lives last night, although it may seem to you that I doomed them to suffering and deadly danger. I’ve been dedicating my work to waking up the consciousness of this nation, destroying the horror of fanaticism and making a breach for at least the slightest culture and civilization for a long time already. I have established several schools here – separately for the boys and men, for the girls and women,
so they could learn writing in both their own and Russian languages, so that they would receive the most elementary knowledge of physics, mathematics and history. All of my endeavours are being met with bayonets, not only from the side of mullah, but also from the side of the czar’s government. Both of them are calling me a revolutionary, unreliable man. I’m telling you of all of it, so you could clearly see the situation in which you find yourself and you could foresee your further action after evaluating the situation. I’m warning you in advance: you don’t have any obligations and you are absolutely free to choose your path. Whatever you would hear from me, you will have to decide everything with your own will anyway. What colour and size of the pearl will be which you will string on the chain of Mother-Life with your own hands will depend on your selfless love and work. If you want to withdraw from the fight for your brother and Nal, your lord Benedict,” Ali gave a smile, “will take you to Petersburg where no danger will be threatening you. If you remain loyal to your brother – then you will decide yourself what help and role you will take upon yourself in this fight. I was educating Nal myself. We’ve been observing the Eastern way of living only for the sake of appearance, and besides, not so strictly at all. Nal is rather educated, her abilities allowed her to acquire the education much higher than that which another person would get in any other European university. Five years ago I persuaded your brother to give Nal lessons of mathematics, physics, chemistry and foreign languages, because I was unable to teach her regularly myself due to my often trips. All those oriental robes, beards, moustaches which you and Florentian hid in the wardrobe of your brother today are also related to this. Stupid duenja, Ali Machmed’s mother, whom once I saved from misery and death, turned out to be ungrateful and vicious. Only by changing all sorts of oriental robes and make-up, your brother was able to get into Nal’s working room as the teacher, while the weak-sighted old woman was certain that she was letting always another teacher in. She used to snore so comically when she was guarding Nal during lessons that sometimes the girl would give in and laugh loudly, but the rather deaf duenja wouldn’t even wake up.”
Two great youths showed up in my imagination at once, who were guarded by the half-blind, half-deaf old woman; for some reason I remembered how I was acting the deaf, limping, dumb person myself and I burst out laughing like an urchin.
Ali stroked my shoulder and told me.
“The time was passing. I understood long time ago what feeling had sprung up between Nal and your brother. It was meaningless to appeal to Nikolaj’s honour and wisdom: he had proved that with his behaviour anyway. I wasn’t disturbing their feelings, because I didn’t see any other way out for Nal as only escaping from this pressing fanaticism and I was preparing her for this beforehand. The old fool ruined my entire plan. She started intrigues with the mullah and dervishes behind my back. Finally she agreed to give Nal in marriage to the most furious and wicked religious fanatic of everybody of them whom I knew. Now the massacre is being declared against me, because I didn’t agree with the marriage, besides I was a guardian to the Christians and revolutionaries. I won’t burden you with the details, you could see yourself that I didn’t succeed in avoiding the marriage. At that time when Florentian took you out of the garden, the feast on the women’s side continued. The women gathered to their side through another entrance and over there everything was prepared for the legal stealing of the bride. Ali, my nephew, was acting the role of the bride. Having changed into Nal’s clothes, he slipped through to the women’s side in the dark and, while the confusion with the lighting continued, he was in time for taking the bride’s place. The light on the women’s side was out for a little bit longer. Everything was happening as needed. The old women took the bride to the garden and over there, by passing her from one’s hands to another’s, the groom “stole” her. The stealing was done, as it is accustomed for a famous trader, according to all rules – with the noise, gunshots and hubbub. On the way something happened to one of their horses. While the whole band at the head of the groom, armed with the knives, were repairing the harness in the light of the torches, Ali threw his oriental robe and costly cloaks off, left Nal’s shoes which he had taken with himself in the cart,
jumped out silently – he can do it very well – and vanished in the darkness. Both of us, me and Florentian, we were waiting for him at the little gates and all of us together, we returned to the house which had already become calm and sleeping. Ali suffered a lot. You should have noticed the change that happened to him during one night. He was worshiping his little sister since his childhood. He and Nal, often they also used to learn with your brother. Nal – that’s his second “I”, and probably this second “I” is more costly to him than his own life. The storm of jealousy, heavy burden of superstitions, dreams about his happiness with Nal befell on Ali so much that everything had either burn down in him or crush him. He didn’t expect that he wouldn’t become the best Nal’s friend and guardian. He didn’t expect that I would take your brother’s side and give my blessing to this love which Ali was always considering to be pure and chaste. It was unbearable to him to let another man have Nal, and besides that man was the European, as well as because this time she took the path without him, which was full of danger. So first, all of it finished Ali off. Only his total loyalty to me saved him. In the beginning it was a child’s loyalty and love, later – a youth’s, from whom I have never had any secrets. His true love to Nal, which has seized him, forced him to forget himself and think only about her. Actually, his love saved not one, but three lives which would have stopped because of his hand if his loyalty to me hadn’t overcome everything within him. Tonight, in his free will, he choose his path of life and strung the pearl of renunciation on the string of his chain – the black pearl like those leaves of the maple, - in order to help the woman live, who looks pretty much like the reddish magnolia… I have already mentioned that not today – tomorrow the massacre would be declared against me. I’d rather not explain to you what it means… When, having driven to the groom’s house, everybody noticed that only Nal’s clothes were left in the cart, they reported about it to mullah and dervishes at once and, having talked things over with them, they came back to our house. I was surrounded by the crowd that was clamouring disgustingly, outraging and threatening. Having taken advantage of one more quiet moment, I commanded my servants to ask the old women to come. They had to take Nal from the house to the garden, to the place that was arranged with the groom. The crowd was waiting. It seemed that everything around was filled with the energy of their anger. The passing minutes of waiting became hours. Undoubtedly, the confusion had woken everybody up on the women’s side, too. Soon six old women with Nal’s aunt in front of them were already standing next to me.”
“These people,” I told them, “are accusing you that you didn’t take Nal to the garden, but you gave only her clothes to the groom.”
“An inconceivable howling rose in both groups – among the brutalized men and the women who were shaking with fear and who were angry because of such accusations. Both sides were ready to catch hold one of another. Swinging her arms, mumbling some maledictions, the old aunt was insisting that she herself put Nal’s hand into the hands of the groom. The rest of them were insisting that they saw how the groom took the bride in his hands and he didn’t even noticed that she was too heavy for his weak hands. I looked at the groom, he cast down his eyes and was confessing that he hadn’t carried any women in his hands up to then and that Nal seemed to him heavier than he imagined. When I asked him if he himself took her in the cart, he showed two of his friends who were tall, strong and he explained that he himself hardly carried Nal to the little gates, and then one of his friends carried her to the cart; both of the strong men were putting her in the cart. I also had to interrogate those men, if there was Nal or only her clothes which they put in the cart. Both of them were insisting that nobody else than Nal could be so slender and elegant.”
“Where have you taken her to?” I asked them. “The women are stating that they gave her to you, you are stating that you took her from them, in the meanwhile you come to my house to look for that whom you have taken away from it. Well, so where is Nal?”
“Again there were questions asked, they were accusing me and my nephew that we stole and hid Nal in my house, that apparently, she ran away at that moment when they stopped because of the
harness. They were insisting that Nal was in my harem. There were no limits to the rage of the old women and aunt who was absolutely furious already. Finally, the mullah with two dervishes stepped forward and asked for permission to inspect the women’s side. The crowd which was attracted by the noise of the night and curiosity was terrified by such a decision, but I asked them to fall silent and everybody to remain in one’s place. I gave permission to the old women, mullah and dervishes to look for her in my entire house, wherever they wanted to. The noisy crowd had already raided my entire garden without any permission; the cellar, ice-house, coach house, barn where the machine of electricity was installed received their attention, too. It was dawning already. The search continued for a long time. There were even the ones in the crowd were drowsing already, when finally, the mullah and the monks were back. Their sullen faces were telling about the results of the search without any words. Flabby, short groom, irritated by the experience misfortune, was hardly able to drag his legs along already. The mullah understood that it was the best to play a comedy of sympathy to me, so he told a fanciful speech how the old women failed to protect the girl from under uncle’s very nose. The howling could be heard again, and who knows whether the mullah had saved his beard if Ali Machmed and me hadn’t stopped the old women who were totally furious already. The wiser monks were trying to persuade the crowd to break up, so that it wouldn’t draw Russian government’s attention to the domestic scandal. I could see a deadly hatred in their eyes and I didn’t have any doubts that they would finish me, Ali and many of my guests and members of the family off if there wasn’t light of the morning already and if they didn’t have fear of being responsible before the Russian justice. As the locals could see it, the groom made a fool of himself the most. He looked at his strong men angrily, some suspicion flashed in his eyes, all of a sudden he turned his back to them, cursed rudely and quickly ran to the little gates. His friends, mullah and the crowd were standing for a while, stunned and quiet, then they dashed after the groom, stumbling, knocking one another down or pressing one another at the narrow gates. The groom kept quarrelling with his friends and mullah behind the fence, then there were cries, several gunshots could be heard once again, the racket of the leaving cart – and then everything lapsed into silence. The old women were finished off by shame, and they were really unhappy. They were sincerely making a vow and swearing that Nal and her friends were really sitting at the table during the whole evening, that they had put the black cloak on bride’s expensive mantles, that… I told everybody to break up. I told them that I myself would be looking for Nal and that nobody would go in and out of the house during the day.
Now I received the message that your brother and Nal are successfully going to Moscow by the fast train, but it doesn’t mean that they are saved. Their lives are in danger until they reach Petersburg and get on the ship that is sailing from the Neva port to London.”
“Now let’s proceed to your role,” Ali Mahomet continued after reconsidering something briefly. “You are entangled into this story not because of your free will, but as Nikolaj’s brother, because all my friends, as well as the people who are more or less close to them became enemies to the blind religious fanatics. On the other hand, the dervishes have decided that the old limping man who was unknown to them stole Nal. The tracks may lead them to you, and without any doubt, they will lead them to Florentian. I am repeating to you: decide everything yourself on your own free will. You can tell me right now if you don’t want to join this entire affair, then you would have to leave to K. immediately,” Ali was referring to a large commercial city, “with a letter to my friend. You would live there for two or three weeks and then you would come back to Petersburg. If you want to help me to fight for your brother’s life, then make up your mind and start acting.”
Ali finished the conversation with me in this way.